All 1 Lord McNally contributions to the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL] 2019-21

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Mon 27th Jan 2020
Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

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Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Transport

Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL]

Lord McNally Excerpts
2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading (Hansard)
Monday 27th January 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lady Randerson was unavoidably delayed, although I am pleased that she is now with us. Because of that late arrival, she will not take part in Second Reading and I will open for these Benches on this Bill. Thankfully, she has promised to do the heavy lifting when we get to the Committee and Report stages. She has already indicated to the Minister our general support for the Bill. In Committee we will probe the process of consultation in relation to airspace modernisation and suggest some tightening and extension of the regulation of drones.

This is an important Bill because aviation is an important industry, and how well we manage and regulate it impinges greatly on our future prosperity. As the Minister said in a letter to my noble friend Lady Randerson:

“Modernising our airspace is essential for maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in aviation. The UK’s airspace has not undergone significant change since the 1960s and is now reaching capacity.”

In such circumstances the Bill is not just timely but—as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, indicated—overdue.

In the 21st century any Bill about aviation has to clear a number of hurdles. It has to promote efficiency and competitiveness, improvements—especially, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, emphasised, in the environment, where we strive to be greener and cleaner—and safety. In the case of drones, it has to help fight against abuse and misuse of drone technology.

Last Wednesday evening I attended the amazing session organised by the Lord Speaker, when we heard from Sir David Attenborough about the climate change crisis. I noticed that Sir David was reluctant to demonise out of hand the industries that contribute to climate change and global warming. The truth is that it is the success of industries such as petrochemicals and aviation that have contributed to the success of the world economy over the last century and the living standards we now enjoy. We will need the skills and know-how of the industries we now brand as polluters if we are to retain the benefits of these industries while dealing with the downsides of their operation.

Airports are a good example. As a young MP, 40 years ago, the first Adjournment debate I obtained in the other place was on aircraft noise over Stockport. The debate was answered by a junior Minister called Norman Tebbit, who, like the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, had experience as an airline pilot. In raising the question of aircraft noise, I was raising a genuine concern of my constituents, but I never lost sight of the fact that Manchester Airport was, and is, a massive engine of growth and job creation in the north-west region.

Another experience which influenced my attitude to airports was in 1976, when I was sent by Lord Callaghan to Atlanta to meet some of the key officials who would be joining President-elect Jimmy Carter in Washington. I met one of his senior aides in Atlanta City Hall, and I complimented him on the success and obvious dynamism of the city. His reply has influenced my views ever since: “Well, it helps that Coca-Cola has its world headquarters in Atlanta, but the smartest decision we ever took was to campaign to be the southern hub airport for the USA. Airports are like rail heads were in the old west: they create economic activity and growth.” I believe that to be true, so how we use our airspace is very important, in both its economic and environmental impact. We have to assess the measures and powers in this Bill in the light of both.

The same is true of drones, which have quickly moved from futuristic toys to key means of efficient delivery of goods and services, and weapons of war. As with airports, it is easy to demonise drones and, as with almost every other technology, we have to accept that, along with the benefits, there comes abuse by the criminal and the irresponsible. The Bill highlights and provides remedies for abuse of drones, both in terms of airline safety and nuclear and prison security. We will undoubtedly stress-test the proposals in the Bill in Committee. I must confess that, from my time as a Minister at the Ministry of Justice, I retain a puzzlement why there are not the means to disable drones attempting to smuggle drugs or other contraband into prisons. It is important that, in the passage of the Bill, we examine thoroughly the real and present dangers posed. But we should do so while taking into account the warning contained in the briefing we received from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which says that it is important that the legislation is enabling and does not create unintended consequences that might stifle innovation.

A similar concern was expressed by the Drone Delivery Group, which seeks to co-ordinate industry policy in this area. In its proposal published this month, the group acknowledges that the UK Government have been at the forefront of drone regulatory development since initial guidance published by the CAA in 2001. But it goes on to warn that, despite the very best-intentioned efforts, the overall government landscape is fractured, with different departments sponsoring, or at a minimum working with, different groups and approaches, with no clear national strategy to understand and ultimately develop and standardise an evidence-based UK unmanned air system traffic-management landscape. The House will want to test the legislation before us against such criticisms. As the Drone Delivery Group warns: for the UK to maintain its reputation as being at the forefront of this dynamic emerging industry, industry and government must collaborate in establishing a new approach. As ever, our test for legislation must be the test of efficiency in addressing the problems identified, balanced with proportionality in avoiding unintended consequences.

My attitude to flight controllers goes back to a time, over 40 years ago, when, while in government, I was offered a lift back from a conference in Germany in an RAF HS125, from Bonn to RAF Northolt. Because I was the only passenger, the pilot invited me to sit up front with him and to wear the ear cans to listen to air traffic control. I am a good flyer, but I have never been so scared in my life. The airspace seemed to be full of aircraft. When I expressed some concern, the pilot reassured me, “He’s doing a great job shuffling us through the pack. We’re on a clear run into Northolt.”

That experience left me with the impression that air traffic control is a kind of three-dimensional chess. However, we know that these days the aircraft is flying at its safest when under the control of its autopilot computer. It crossed my mind that air traffic control will be done more and more by artificial intelligence. As I said, I am a good flyer, but can the Minister assure me that in this brave new world, where the aeroplane is flown by computers and the traffic controlled by AI, there will still be a noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, or a noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, somewhere at the controls?