Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords] DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Dean RussellMain Page: Dean Russell (Conservative - Watford)
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May I start by associating myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) said about Captain Sir Tom Moore? Last year, he really did inspire the nation with his fundraising, but of course he also helped to save the nation over 80 years before. It is a very sad day, and my condolences go to his family. He has really shown us the best of British in what he did last year in responding to coronavirus.
I turn to the subject of today’s debate. After all the Brexit and covid-related legislation that we have been through so far, a Bill such as this is quite refreshing for a new MP. It is a more traditional piece of legislation: an important update that reflects changes in the world and aims to future-proof—as best we can—for the world we are going to get back into once we get past the pandemic. I congratulate the Minister and welcome him to his place, and also congratulate Baroness Vere on all the work she did on the Bill in the Lords. This is a case of proportionate regulation, which is what we always seek to do as a Government and as a Conservative party. We recognise the need for regulation. It needs to be proportionate and to not put undue burdens on businesses, but we need to make sure that things work, and work for the good of the country.
I turn briefly to the first of the Bill’s three parts, on airspace management. It is to be hoped that airports can co-operate without the requirement for the Secretary of State to compel them; perhaps this Bill will make the voluntary process a little more voluntary, if you understand what I mean, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, we have an airspace modernisation strategy and, within that, some airports may need to release underused controlled airspace, for example. As many of my colleagues have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South, we have a very complex airspace—one of the most complicated in the world. Of course, it is very empty at the moment for the reasons we have discussed, but anything we can do to modernise that and make things work better is obviously something we should be encouraging as a Government. We need quicker, quieter, cleaner journeys. Unnecessary fuel burning on approach is not only ridiculous from a green perspective, but leads to a great deal of noise and inconvenience for individuals.
In itself, that is the source of delays. As we have heard from a number of colleagues, one in three flights might be significantly delayed by 2030 if we do not pass this legislation today. Of course, that also creates more capacity, and although none of us can know exactly what the world is going to look like, I think having that capacity is a good thing: whether we use it or not, it allows us to be more efficient in the way we route our flights and go on holiday, as well as in our world trade, as the Minister said. We are just about to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, one hopes—we are starting the proceedings for that—and we will need our aviation industry to be part of our trade with the rest of the world as well.
The second part is mostly tidying up and modernising, but what it needs to do, and what it does, is reflect our safety record and ensure that we maintain that record. I think that new clause 12, which the Government introduced while the Bill was in the Lords—this is the covid-related aspect of today’s legislation, I suppose—is a very sensible amendment that reflects the situation we are in at present. Personally, I would favour a much more market-based approach to slots in future. However, with the industry on its knees at the moment, now is clearly not the right time for that and in any event it would require global co-operation. The idea that things should be grandfathered down forever and ever does not strike me as a modern way to do things, but I understand that is how we have to operate at the moment, and the proposals in new clause 12 are a sensible suspension of that process while we work through covid.
Part 3 deals with unarmed aircraft or drones. We have heard from many people, including the Minister, that drones are having a huge effect on lots of important areas. They can be a real boon to many industries, including search and rescue and medical supplies, and are also a very engaging hobby, as I have seen for myself when walking up in the Staffordshire moorlands.
I have no desire—nor, I am sure, do the Government—to demonise responsible owners of drones who are having fun with them, getting out and enjoying the great outdoors. However, we need measures to guard against malicious use, and we also need sensitive sites to be able to defend themselves. That includes airports, as we saw at Gatwick, and some of our most sensitive sites, such as nuclear sites; it also includes prisons, as many have said. The idea that drones can get around prisons, or get over and into prisons, is one that nobody should tolerate, and I know the police are very keen for us to get this legislation passed so that we can cut down on what is going on there. We also need a solution so that a single sighting of a drone does not close an airport, and the measures in the Bill mean that we will not see repeats of what happened at Gatwick.
I will conclude, because I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) is desperate to stand up and make his speech; I can see him grinning. This is a solid piece of legislation. I am glad that it has cross-party support. It has already been tried and tested in the Lords, with amendments incorporated into it. This is how the House should proceed with measures such as this, which are all about ensuring that we are battle-ready for both the present and future in important industries such as aviation that have such an important part to play in our future. I commend the Minister for his opening speech and for all his work on the Bill.
Before summing up the debate, I would like once again to offer Her Majesty’s official Opposition’s condolences to the family and friends of Sir Tom Moore. While we hurt today, he reminded us that tomorrow will be a better day.
It has been a terrific debate—really well informed and the House at its best. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it is about co-operation and trying to get our aviation sector to a better place in a difficult time. I thank the Members who have contributed today. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said that our airways are part of our critical national infrastructure, and that is how we should treat them. Let us make sure that we improve them. If there is a hold-up at Treasury, as he says, let us get past that and do this for the good of the industry and the country.
As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said, while drones can be a force for good in the world, they can be a force for evil, with malicious use by the drug barons and others, and that is why we need to have better police powers, which are intended to be in this Bill.
The right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) said it is crucial we find a way to redress the environmental impact of aviation. Nobody would be against that and that is what we all seek to do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has grappled with the issues of having one of the world’s major airports in his constituency. The approach is piecemeal to a certain extent, and we do need a comprehensive strategy, and let us hope we get there in the near future.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) has expertise and is a pilot himself. He spoke of a single authority to broker co-operation. That is what the Bill hopes to achieve. Airspace modernisation will be a benefit for small craft such as the one he flies; as it happens, I am sure the Secretary of State will also be pleased by that. He also rightly pointed out the effect of the pandemic on regional airports. While we welcome the business rates support, we know that for some airports that hardly touched the sides, and I will come back to that point in a second.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) spoke about quicker, quieter, cleaner journeys, and that is what is required. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), whom I praise for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on general aviation, said that the best days lie ahead for aviation, and I believe that. With electric flights, hydrogen flights and clean fuel flights, there is the opportunity to modernise. Labour has called for a further sector-specific deal, and he echoed that by saying that further support is required and not only in aviation. As he mentioned, we can inspire our young people into STEM subjects and the industry.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) rightly pointed out that we enable residents to have a say through consultation, and that is important. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). It is unimaginable that the airspace above the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) has not been modernised since the 1950s. Since then, Yuri Gagarin went into space and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. It is time for this legislation.
As ever, my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the immense benefits that drone technology will bring to the Northern Ireland economy. The Minister and I cover maritime as well, and there is just the search and rescue capability we have not even thought of that can be inspired by drone technology and, again, we hope to see that come on stream.
The hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), whose airport lies between Manchester’s in my constituency and John Lennon airport, is right. Our skies are packed in good times, and we need better co-ordination. He said it: we need to set our eyes on the horizon and to be looking 50 years ahead. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) said we need to future-proof our airspace for the world we want to see again. Finally, the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell), who has just spoken about his real lived experience of working in an airport—there is nothing quite like it—said that security, safety and the passenger experience have to be at the heart of what we do. I hope that we can explore some of those themes further in the Bill Committee.