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Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am grateful for this second opportunity in my brief parliamentary career to talk about aircraft noise, which, as I am sure the Minister will remember from the last time that we discussed it, makes a great impact on the quality of life of the people whom I represent. Judging by the considerable interest that hon. Members and outside organisations have shown in this debate, it is not only the constituents of Tatton who suffer the tyranny of sleepless nights caused by unnecessary commercial night flights.
My hon. Friend the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) has contacted me about the matter. He has been a strong voice arguing for a more balanced approach to be taken towards airport policy. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) is present for the debate. He is a tireless campaigner on such issues and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I have even been contacted by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who is concerned about helicopter night flights in south Armagh, but that may be beyond the scope of today's debate.
Since the Minister and I last met, the landmark ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on 2 October 2001 has been a major development in the whole vexed question of night flights. The ruling, which relates specifically to Heathrow, will have a major impact on Manchester airport near my constituency because it adopts the same night flight policy as Heathrow. I shall not go into whether the European Court of Human Rights should be ruling on such issues. Some of us believe that it has gone far beyond its original remit, but we are signatories to the convention and usually accept its judgments. Indeed, the Government are so enamoured of the convention that they have gone so far as to incorporate it into our domestic law.
A fair balance should mean that people who live under flight paths and near airports should at least have the right to a good night's sleep. Reasonable and appropriate measures should therefore include the banning of night flights.
I suspect from the Minister's recent written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor that he will say that the Government are studying the judgment, that they have three months until it becomes final and that they are commissioning yet another study into attitudes to sleep disturbance. In other words, he will not say
He will further know that the WHO charter sets out what it calls "community noise guidelines", which state that night-time noise levels should not exceed 60 decibels for an individual noise event such as the flying over of an aeroplane.
I am sure that the Minister will also know that the charter has been signed by two of his fellow Ministers, including the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who is now in the Cabinet, as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He will also know that in a letter to campaigners at Gatwick, a copy of which I have here, Elizabeth Duthie of his Department's aviation environmental division confirms that Britain is a signatory to the charter, which, although not legally binding, represents a "political commitment" on which the Government need to act in three years. In other words, the Government, through their political commitment to the WHO charter, are committed to a 60-decibel limit for an individual noise event at night such as the flying over of an aeroplane.
According to Manchester airport's fixed noise monitor between Knutsford and Mobberley in my constituency, in July and August this year the average noise level at night from aircraft was 78 decibels18 decibels higher than the WHO charter allows for. Given how the sound scale works, that means that the average aeroplane at night is four times higher in perceived loudness than the WHO guidelines allow. I emphasise the word "average", because some aeroplanes are much louder even than that. The latest noise fines from Manchester airport show that its night noise limit of 87 decibels, a full 27 points higher than the WHO guidelines, was breached several times during the summer by, for example, Pakistan International Airlines three times, Scandinavian Airlines twice and a couple of freight company aeroplanes.
Each of those aircraft would have woken up thousands of people in my constituency, but the fine received would have been no more than a few hundred pounds. That is why I argued in our first debate on the issue that as a first step and a bare minimum we need much stiffer fines for airlines that break noise limits,
As I said in our previous debate, I am not anti-airport, and I accept that we will not stop people wanting to fly. In dealing with airport policy we need, as the European Court of Human Rights says, to strike a
However the figures are examined, night flights are a relatively small proportion of airport business. "Ah," the airlines and airports cry, "There may be only a few flights, but they are very lucrative, and if we banned them all, our customers would all go to Charles de Gaulle or Schiphol or another European airport." They certainly cannot switch to Tokyo or Sydney airport, not only because they are on the other side of the world, but because those airports already ban night flights. Being such good Europeans, the Government will recognise that one of the advantages of the ECHR ruling is that it will apply to night flights out of other, continental European airports too, and with such a level playing field there is no danger of customers landing at 4 am in Paris instead of Manchester. The Government should regard the ECHR judgment not as a setback but as a blessing.
When I asked for a debate, I knew that the Minister would not be able to detail the Government's response to the ECHR judgment in full, but I know from my experience of working in Whitehall that the time to try to influence Government policy is before it is announced, rather than after. The message from my constituents that I should like the Minister to take back to his Department today as he considers his response to the judgment is simple. We do not need any more studies into attitudes to sleep disturbance. We do not need any more Government flannel about unspecified economic benefits to the country. The only practical way in which the Government can satisfy the European Court of Human Rights judgment, meet their commitments under the World Health Organisation charter that they have signed, and give my constituents a decent quality of life, is by banning night flights.
This has never been a partisan issue, as the presence of the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) shows. I have banged my head against the brick wall of this Government, and of the Conservative Government whom I supported. It has been difficult to explain to Governments that our constituents have a serious problem, and we have a duty faithfully and accurately to represent the widely held views of our constituents to the Government. My hon. Friend referred to the irony of Conservatives supporting a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. That is an irony with which I can easily live. It may not be the means that I would preferI would prefer to make such progress in this Housebut it is the means, we hope, to an end. I hope that the Government will take the ruling seriously.
I want to touch on one or two points that have already been raised. Most importantly, we are not anti-airport. We have kept an open mind on many of the issues relating to the airport. I congratulate it frequently on being a good neighbour in lots of waysits public relations staff do a lot of good work throughout my constituency, many of my constituents work for the airport, and many of my constituents use it for holidays and business trips. However, night noise is unacceptable. Whatever efforts we have made in the past, which have not been successful, have now had a result through the European Court. My hon. Friend mentioned that the Court thought that a fair balance had not been struck between two competing intereststhat of the state and of the individual. That is what we have argued in the past. We believe that there should be a balance, and we do not want to deliberately set out to destroy a greater economic interest.
The judgment shows three things in particular, and vindicates some of what we have been saying over the years. First, the 1993 scheme has not achieved the stated aim of keeping overall noise levels below those in 1988. We made that point frequently, and the Court judges that to be the case. Secondly, the bogus distinction used when the sleep research was originally donebetween sleep disturbance and sleep preventionwas a thorn in our side for many years. We tried to make Governments of all parties understand that they were missing the point in terms of disturbance and prevention, and that the research was fundamentally flawed as a result. The court has agreed with us on that. Thirdly, on the economic interest of the country, the court finds that in terms of the national economy as a whole, the importance of that contribution has never been assessed critically. That is terribly important, because we have tried on many occasions to make the Government say what the cost would be if the night flights were no longer allowed to carry on. Neither the Government nor the agencies that they have asked to look into the matter in the past have made that assessment. If that had been
We shall keep up the pressure. The hon. Member for Putney and I have asked for responses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is doing today. We know that the Government have a certain amount of time to respond to the case, but we urge them to take the matter seriously. We are here to try to articulate the views of our constituents. If the brick wall that we in Westminster have been banging our heads against has finally collapsed in Strasbourg, so much the better. However, the heart of the matter is the distress of thosethe elderly, young people with exams the next day, those who are anxious about their lives in many different wayswho are unable to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. That is indeed a matter of human rights.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing this debate and on the way in which he has conducted it. As usual, he has proved sensible and well informed, and as the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) said, he has put his constituents first. I also thank him for making my speech for me. That was very kind of him, and he anticipated its content absolutely correctly. His own speech was wide-ranging, but it would be sensible for me to restrict my comments to the title of the debate. Although I may not be able to consider all his points in the detail that he would like, I can assure him that we have listened carefully to them, and to those made by the hon. Member for Windsor.
The hon. Member for Tatton has been most diligent in securing a second debate on aircraft noise so soon after 17 July, when we last met in this Chamber. However, he will appreciate that unfortunately, my comments today must be somewhat constrained, given that the court judgment in the Hatton case was published as recently as 2 October. I am sure that he does not expect me to say today what the Government are going to do. Indeed, if I did so hon. Members who represent the many different and conflicting interests involved would be quick to criticise the Government for not giving this important judgment the careful consideration that it deserves.
In the weeks ahead, we shall indeed be giving the judgment the careful consideration that it warrants, before deciding what actionif anyto take. Furthermore, there is time for such consideration. According to the procedures of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the judgment cannot become final until at least three months after the date of its publication on 2 October. There will therefore be no immediate changes to the present situationneither at Heathrow, which is the focus of that particular case, nor elsewhere.
The essence of those rights has been covered by both today's speeches. However, like many rights that the convention guarantees, they are necessarily qualified by the second part of the article, which states:
Such qualified rights give rise to the "fair balance" or "proportionality" test, as there is often a need to strike a balance between the rights of the individual and the competing rights and interests of othersincluding, as in cases such as this, the economic well-being of the country.
The Government also have a positive duty to safeguard the rights of individuals as guaranteed by the convention. I should mention steps that the Government have taken, through the Human Rights Act 1998, to make such rights more accessible in our domestic courts. I was delighted to discover that the hon. Member for Windsor now agrees with that approach. I wonder what he might have said about the matter and how he might have voted on it when it came before us a few years ago. However, I shall move on rapidly from that.
An important issue in the Hatton case is whether the Government got that balance right when they introduced a modified scheme of restrictions on night flights at Heathrow in 1993 and 1995. The court clearly has its doubts on that score. It is concerned by the way in which, in the 1993 and 1995 decisions, the balance was struck between the conflicting rights and interests. It is particularly concerned by the amount of information that the Government had available to them at that time, and whether that information was adequate. We must consider those issues carefully. We also need to reflect on the fact that the 1993 night restrictions regime was replaced by more stringent arrangements at Heathrow in 1999. We must therefore consider what further measures may be necessary in light of the judgment. We also need to consider whether the judgment has wider implications beyond Heathrow night flights.
Because of the media interest in the case, some of which has been less than objective, it is important to make it clear that we do not currently consider that the court judgment says that the disturbance that a limited number of night flights can cause necessarily amounts to a violation of human rights, and therefore they should not be allowed. In our view, the court continues to recognise the principle that a fair balance needs to be struck.
The court also recognises that part of the problem in striking the right balance is the difficulty of measuring the economic importance of night flights and the harm that they can cause. The latter is a little easier to assess than the former. A great deal of the best research has been conducted in this country, looking into the effects of night flights in causing interference with sleep, including premature awakening and sleep prevention. Much of that research has been carried out around Manchester and Heathrow.
As with the more difficult area of researching the contribution of air transport to the economy, sleep research is too often casually dismissed when it does not conform to preconceived ideas or is held to be counter-intuitive.
Although it may be possible, after careful study, to estimate the value of night flights to the economy, it would certainly not be a simple matter. It would have to involve key assumptions for the purpose of estimating the important secondary economic benefits. Sadly, the result would inevitably be open to criticism as either an overestimate or an underestimate, depending, of course, on one's point of view, and not necessarily on the facts of the case. Indeed, that was the case with the Oxford Economic Forecasting report on the "Contribution of the Aviation Industry to the UK Economy" in 1999.
Not all things can be measured precisely. Night flights form part of an integrated network of services, and their economic value cannot readily be teased out from the other services that they complement and with which they interconnect. There are important economic regions of the world that are best served by night services, simply because of the geography of the world, the time-zone differences and the duration of flights. This is not a uniquely British problem, as the same services operate at night to all other major European cities, although our one-hour local time difference from continental Europe does exacerbate the problem in the UK for airlines wishing to compete on broadly equal terms with those based in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
Despite the difficulties of conducting scientifically robust research in such controversial areas, the Government are not throwing in the towel. Indeed, we are in the process of commissioning a major new study to reassess attitudes to aircraft noise, which will include further research into subjective responses to annoyance by night and day. That was announced by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) on 8 May 2001. The aviation industry should meet the external costs that it imposes, and the new study will give us more information on the value that people give to relief from noise. However, it would be premature to initiate further studies of any other aspects of night flights while we are considering the implications of the judgment.
We have a few more moments, so I thought that it might be helpful to respond to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised in the debate on 17 July, when there was insufficient time to do so. I shall try to make amends for that deficiency. He said that people at Manchester airport had told him that pilots could do little to reduce noise when coming in to land, which is why there are fines for aircraft that exceed the maximum permitted noise limits on take-off only. There is a kernel of truth in that, but the matter is a little more complicated. On take-off, pilots have considerable scope to operate their aircraft in ways that will reduce the noise that they make, especially when they are encouraged to climb as quickly as possible. Therefore the departure noise limits, and the fines that Manchester and other airports levy on aircraft that exceed them, serve an important role in influencing pilots to operate their aircraft in the most noise-efficient way.
However, on the final approach to landing pilots have to follow the precisely defined 3 deg descending glideslope of the instrument landing system and adhere strictly to the specified approach speeds. That leaves them with little scope to influence the amount of noise that their aircraft make, especially when flaps are deployed to provide essential lift at lower speeds and when the landing gear has been lowered. Consequently, fines would not influence pilot behaviour or techniques, and there is concern in some quarters that they could have safety implications. Further from the airport, however, before aircraft are established on the final approach track, pilots can do much more to reduce noise. In particular, whenever practicable they can follow the best practice "continuous descent approach" procedure and maintain their aircraft in a "low power and low drag" configuration.
My Department has been working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, air traffic controllers and airline pilots to develop best practice guidance for pilots to improve their approach procedures. Although there is some scope to reduce noise during the approach phase, it is very limited closer to the airport, as would be the case over Knutsford in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tatton.
This has been a narrowly focused debate. I have even managed to insert one or two comments on matters raised in a previous debate, which may help the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he and other hon. Members appreciate that at this stage the Government are somewhat limited in framing our full response, but I hope that my comments have been helpful in the context of this important matter.