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Gatwick Airport (Ground Handling)

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Claire Ward.]

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise an important matter on the Adjournment this evening. The millions of the travelling public who use Gatwick airport and the thousands of people who work there also believe that it is important.

My constituency—Crawley in West Sussex—has grown up with Gatwick airport since the 1950s. The airport is wholly within the Crawley constituency and, even in the worst of the Tory years, when recession, high interest rates and unemployment wreaked such havoc in so many communities across the UK, it sustained Crawley and we have always been grateful to it.

The year on year success of Gatwick is a key reason Crawley is the most successful of the new towns—but I would say that, wouldn’t I? By sustaining high employment, the quality of all our lives is enhanced. I know from my frequent dealings with local business people how much they appreciate the quality of service that they get from Gatwick and its impact on the local business community. There can be no doubt that Gatwick is the premier business in the “Gatwick diamond” area, and a major draw for many other businesses locating there.

It consistently wins the airport of the year award and we are justly proud of that. Gatwick’s status as a transport hub is crucial, which is why we so warmly welcome the Department for Transport’s recent decision to retain Gatwick Express, through a reasonable compromise about which we are delighted locally.

I recently met around 100 local business people from my constituency when they came to the House of Commons for a business summit that I arranged the day after the Budget. It is a mark of the importance that the Treasury places on the business community in the Gatwick diamond area that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary made himself available for the event.

We learned that the Gatwick diamond business community is vibrant, enthusiastic and extensive, with a GDP that is estimated at £38 billion. It ranks 56th out of 200 regions measured across Europe. Naturally, the business community is keen to promote the Gatwick diamond area throughout Europe and internationally. A central part of that promotion must be the airport.

People in and around Crawley are proud of their airport. The many thousands of people who work there take a genuine pride in the services that they provide and understand clearly the benefits that Gatwick brings. They jealously guard their safety and security reputation, and that is the reason for the debate today. All sorts of people contribute to that good reputation. They include catering staff, security staff, baggage handlers, customs officers, air crew, ground staff, engineers, cleaning staff, immigration staff and medical and nursing staff. I know that I have missed out many people. I simply wanted to mention the many teams that provide such an excellent service.

We all know about the extra pressures that now face airports through the increased security that they have to provide. Staff at Gatwick have risen to the challenges and the heightened security, which has added to the pressures of their work. We congratulate them on their work. BAA is having to recruit many more staff to rise to that challenge, and I look forward to seeing them in place soon.

I have set the scene, and now I want to look in more detail at the issues that have arisen with ground handling services at Gatwick. Among other responsibilities, they cover the arrangements for handling the enormous quantity of luggage that inevitably accompanies the 35 million people who travel through the airport each year. For historical reasons, the Civil Aviation Authority has always set a limit on the number of companies involved in ground handling at Gatwick. That has not been a popular decision with everyone. Some felt that it was anti-competitive, especially those airlines operating within tight margins, for whom all cost savings are vital. With liberalised competition, however, things have changed substantially.

Recently, the CAA decided to review the four-operator limit, and held a consultation into the number of ground handling operators working at Gatwick. Of course, holding that consultation was the right way to proceed, but the online consultation was not well advertised, even though it needed to seek the views of people dealing with the issues day in and day out, as well as those of the airline representatives. There was general concern that the consultation process needed to include staff working in ground handling. Representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union and I pressed for the voice for all those staff to be heard to ensure that their expertise and experience was central to the debate.

Most of us do not fully understand the complexities and pressures involved in turning an aircraft round in as little as 25 minutes. There could be as many as 10 different service providers working on one aircraft, and the pressures on staff are enormous. Ensuring their health and safety, along with the safety of the aircraft, must be a priority. That is why I was delighted that the TGWU campaign and the petition to the CAA to extend the consultation period was successful. That allowed those voices to be heard, and I thank the CAA for responding positively. I also pay tribute to those in the T and G, particularly Ian McCullogh and Colin Terry, who worked so hard locally to ensure that these issues were raised. The trade unions have made an important contribution to ensuring that safety is at the heart of the Gatwick operation, with the publication of the charter, particularly from the T and G, which outlines minimum standards for the ground handling services for aircraft. The GMB union conducted a safety audit a couple of years ago, which also made a great contribution.

The concerns relate to the impact of increased competition on the health and safety of the workers and the aircraft. There has been unease, following the consultation, at the speed with which the decision was taken to allow a further ground handling operation at Gatwick. That ground handler was allowed on to the airport just one week after the decision was made. It is not surprising that that resulted in a widespread feeling of scepticism among the existing ground staff about the outcome of the consultation process, as they felt that they had made a good case for ensuring that there was not too much competition, and therefore pressure on the work force.

All staff and employers have a responsibility for health and safety under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. We all accept that. It must therefore be right that the CAA, the contractors and all other employers take into account health and safety issues when making decisions and agreeing any contracts. Many of my constituents involved in manual handling at Gatwick have raised concerns about health and safety since the work pressures on them increased. They say that the drive to reduce costs—which comes from all areas of the airport operation—has already had an impact on staffing levels, leading to a significant increase in manual handling per worker. We should also recognise that there have been significant improvements in the mechanical equipment used to move the vast quantities of cargo and luggage, but people still have to lift very heavy bags.

The facts clearly show that staffing levels have fallen at the same time as aircraft movements and passenger numbers have risen. The airport staff have my sympathy. As a nurse for 25 years, I too was in a profession whose members were susceptible to manual handling injury. Such injuries can be very disabling, and I understand how important it is to ensure that everything possible can be done to minimise the possibility of their occurrence.

Lines of responsibility in health and safety in the national health service are very clear, but I am not entirely sure that that applies to airport workers. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us assurances today on some of the measures that we believe would help us to retain Gatwick’s jealously guarded good reputation. Perhaps she will also tell us whether there have been any impact assessments of the incidence of manual handling-related injuries since the introduction of more ground handling companies, and what other measures exist to ensure that standards are maintained as a further operator comes on board. I am not opposed to competition—competition is healthy—but it is reasonable and important to expect health and safety issues always to come first, especially at an international airport. Health and safety and security go hand in hand.

Two particular worries concern weight limits for individual items of luggage. There have been calls for implementation of the 23 kg limit, but it has not yet been enforced. It is not uncommon for cargo weights in excess of 100 kg to be manually handled by workers in airport holds. The provision of adequate chutes and lifts in areas where staff regularly have to handle items such as wheelchairs is essential, and is crucial to the well-being of airport staff.

Clarity on responsibilities for health and safety issues is vital. I thank the Minister for her helpful answers to my recent parliamentary questions, but they indicate that responsibilities currently fall between the Civil Aviation Authority and the Health and Safety Executive. I should like more information on the particular responsibilities of those bodies.

When I recently had talks with the new airport director, Andy Flower, I raised many of these matters with him. I look forward to receiving the further information that he has promised me, and to further discussions. I want to know how BAA can help to ensure that standards are maintained at Gatwick and that those standards embrace all staff, not just BAA staff. I am told that there has been quite a campaign of letter-writing to the airport director, and I know that many of those people look forward to replies from him on these important issues.

I am immensely proud of Gatwick airport and its entire work force. I want to see the airport go from strength to strength as it adapts to meet the challenges posed by a growth in the number of passengers to 40 million a year. Airport workers can be justly proud of their record on health and safety and security, and we want to ensure that it continues. That is why I have raised these issues today, and why I will continue to press to ensure that standards are maintained at Gatwick so that it remains the airport of choice for many people. The thousands who keep Gatwick airport functioning deserve the support of the House. If they are to keep us travelling, they need to know that they have our support, and that we care about the work that they do.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on securing the debate. She is a tremendous advocate for the people who work at Gatwick airport, and is highly respected both in the House and outside for being so.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that Gatwick airport is a great success story, not only for the local area—important though that is—but for the United Kingdom as a whole. It supports, directly and indirectly, thousands of jobs and the many business opportunities that underpin the success of the Gatwick diamond and the surrounding areas. I agree that the Gatwick Express announcement was good news for passengers and the local community, and I thank her for her support in the campaign that led to us getting that good news. We are adding more seats and trains on one of the country’s busiest rail routes. The need to increase capacity is a great challenge facing the railway industry, and it is a priority for my Department.

As with all airports, the success of Gatwick depends on the contributions of the many and varied people who work there, including those, such as ground handling staff, whose contribution is often unglamorous and hidden from the public gaze, but without whom the whole operation would quickly grind to a halt. I extend my thanks and congratulations to those who work on the ground—literally—at airports, because without them the United Kingdom aviation industry could not continue to offer a first-class service to the travelling public during the many difficult times, such as those that we have gone through lately. I thank them for their co-operation and, in many cases, for their great flexibility.

I understand the concern of staff at Gatwick over the removal of the existing limit on the number of companies permitted to provide ground handling services. It might be helpful if I set out the regulatory position that gives rise to the situation. It is not correct that there has always been such a limit. Before 1998 there was no limit at all. In that year the Civil Aviation Authority, on an application from Gatwick Airport Ltd, made a determination under the ground handling regulations, which had been implemented in the UK the previous year, to limit to four the number of suppliers of airside ground handling services at Gatwick airport. The CAA subsequently modified the determination in 1999, again on application from the airport, so that the number of suppliers of airside bussing services would be limited to two, rather than four. Both decisions rested primarily on arguments relating to the space and capacity available at the airport at that time.

It is important to remember that in the 10 years since the ground handling regulations came into force Gatwick has been the only UK airport with a legal limit on the number of handlers allowed to operate. Gatwick Airport Ltd applied to the CAA in April 2006 to have both of the existing limits removed. On 30 May, the CAA published a proposal in its official record and on its website stating that in the absence of clear arguments to the contrary it was minded to accept the judgment of Gatwick Airport Ltd, as the responsible operator of Gatwick airport, that the existing limitations on the number of airside handlers should be removed.

The CAA asked for representations on this proposal to be made by the end of June. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments about the effectiveness of the consultation process. The CAA extended the period for comments, which I welcome, following representations from the Transport and General Workers Union, to ensure that the union could make a written submission, which it did in October 2006. The TGWU raised a number of concerns about the possible effects of increased competition in the provision of ground handling services at Gatwick, particularly in respect of security, health and safety, and the capacity of the terminal facilities. The CAA considered the representations carefully and seriously, but found no compelling grounds for it to reject the judgment of Gatwick Airport Ltd. Consequently, it decided to revoke the existing limit on the number of companies permitted to provide ground handling services at Gatwick. The CAA’s full decision is set out in its official record, published on 20 February 2007.

In view of the well-established mechanisms of safety oversight of airport operations by the CAA’s safety regulation group and by the Health and Safety Executive, the CAA found no reason to believe that removing the limit would itself have a detrimental effect on health and safety levels. I expect the parties most directly concerned—such as the airport, the airlines and the handling companies—to ensure that any changes to the ground handling arrangements at Gatwick are implemented in a way that does not compromise the safety of staff, which is of paramount importance.

My hon. Friend asks specifically about the respective roles of the CAA and the Health and Safety Executive. The CAA is responsible for ensuring that risks to civil aviation safety are properly controlled. To this end it seeks to ensure that Gatwick airport is safe for use by aircraft and that operators of aircraft have suitable safety arrangements in place both in the air and on the ground.

The role of the HSE is to ensure that risks to people’s health and safety from work activities are properly controlled. There is a memorandum of understanding between the CAA and the HSE, the aim of which is to ensure co-ordination of policy issues, enforcement activity and investigation in respect of aircraft and the systems in which they operate. The memorandum is available for inspection in the safety regulation group section of the CAA website.

My hon. Friend also asks what measures are in place to ensure that standards are maintained as a further operator comes on board and whether any impact assessment of manual handling-related injury has been made since 2002. Prior to the removal of the limits, as part of the re-licensing process, Gatwick Airport Ltd undertook an audit involving existing handling companies and the potential new entrant that looked at health, safety, environmental responsibility, security and service standards. I understand that the potential new entrant received a favourable rating. I also understand that the airport is implementing an enhanced safety performance regime with the expectation of improved safety performance across the board.

My hon. Friend raised two specific health and safety concerns. On weight limits, I understand that the Health and Safety Executive has been successful in working with aircraft operators, ground handling organisations and airports to limit the maximum weight for hold baggage to 32 kg, and that talks are under way to reduce this to 23 kg. This, however, applies only to UK aircraft operators. Otherwise, ground handling operations come within the sphere of the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. The regulations do not set specific weight limits for manual handling, but instead recommend that a specific ergonomic assessment should be made to take account of the specific circumstances of each activity to ensure that the health and safety of the work force is assured. I would expect the parties involved to take full account of those recommendations. In the light of my hon. Friend’s representations, I have asked officials to look at ways in which that matter can be raised at a European level and I will be happy to get back to her on that point.

The provision of chutes and lifts in areas where staff regularly have to handle manual items such as wheelchairs is essentially a matter for the airport’s management. As part of the development of the airport’s capital expenditure programme, I would expect that to be the subject of consultation between the airport and its customer airlines, which are likely to have in mind the implications for their ground handling suppliers of investing—or of failing to invest—in facilities that support ground handling activities.

I am aware that concern has been expressed about the space to accommodate extra handlers. The CAA accepted Gatwick’s contention that congestion was primarily a function of peak passenger demand at the airport, rather than being related to the number of ground handlers operating. In its 1998 decision, the CAA had noted that it would be possible to review the limit on the number of handlers should circumstances change significantly from those then prevailing at Gatwick. The CAA said that it now expected Gatwick airport to work with all handlers to ensure that adequate space was sought and used appropriately.

The CAA notified all interested parties of its decision to remove the limit on the number of ground handling service providers at Gatwick on 14 February 2007. Gatwick airport was therefore free to appoint a fifth handler at any time after this date.

I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said about the speed with which a fifth operator was announced, and her observation that that generated scepticism about the consultation process among existing ground handling staff. However, I can assure both her and them that the airport’s preparations had no effect on the CAA’s decision.

I understand that the airport had to act rapidly to complete the appointment, as a number of the existing ground handling contracts were due to expire at the end of March. An orderly handover of business was needed, in the interests of the airport and of its customers and staff.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley for speaking up on behalf of people who are an integral part of the Gatwick airport team. I assure both her and her constituents that I shall continue to take a close interest in the matters that have been raised in the House tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Seven o’clock.