Skip to main content

Airports (Amendment) Bill [HL]

Volume 736: debated on Friday 16 March 2012

Second Reading

Moved By

My Lords, successive Governments have, for many years, implemented regional policies. These policies have been designed to prevent, or at least reduce, economic decline in those areas of the country that have seen their economic strength eroded as traditional industries contracted. These regional policies have been augmented by the European Union through the regional development fund. It is no surprise, therefore, that those of us who represent regions will, from time to time, look at government policy through the prism of regionalism to see whether our interests are being protected.

Early last year, I put down a Question for Short Debate which was eventually debated in Grand Committee on 15 November 2011. That debate covered the question of transport links between the regions and London. A number of noble Lords drew attention to the problems faced in different areas of the United Kingdom because of poor road or rail infrastructure. Aviation matters were also mentioned, as is pointed out in the briefing note prepared by the Library for this Bill today.

One of the principal requirements of a regional policy is to improve the competitiveness of a region. In order to do so, access is critical. This requires investment in infrastructure, which means having good communications by road, rail, air, sea and, in today’s world, broadband. The recently proposed acquisition of BMI airlines by BA has undoubtedly provoked interest in the matters we are about to debate. This has raised the wider question of the absence of any government powers to intervene in the trading of landing slots at Heathrow. This is a critical issue as far as I am concerned, as, unlike other European countries, the United Kingdom has only one hub airport. While I am not anticipating any immediate threat to important regional-to-Heathrow services, the fact remains that nobody can predict events. If a difficulty were to arise, the Government are powerless to act. I am entirely agnostic about the commercial take-over of BMI by the International Airlines Group, but I am concerned that the Government have no power to intervene.

As is the case in many policy areas, there is a significant European Union dimension to our deliberations. Aviation is a matter where we have ceded a competence to Brussels that is highly relevant to this Bill. Currently, EU Council Regulation EEC 95/93, as amended by Regulation EC 793/2004, provides a policy umbrella for the conduct of air connections between major hub airports and regions within member states. The preamble to the regulation states:

“Whereas it is necessary to make special provisions, under limited circumstances, for the maintenance of adequate domestic air services to regions of the Member State concerned”.

In practice, this means that if a national government believe that one of their regions is becoming isolated from another, they may apply to provide a public service obligation so that a subsidy can be paid to an airline to provide a connection between regions. This provision, however, does not allow for a PSO to be applied to a connection between two specific cities or between a region and a specific airport.

In the past few months, Brussels has been addressing a number of aviation issues. On 1 December 2011, the Commission produced an “airport package”, COM (2011) 827 final, which deals with a number of policy areas, landing and take-off slots being among them. On 19 December 2011, the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism produced an own opinion draft report on the future of regional airports and air services in the EU, written by rapporteur Philip Bradbourn MEP. Paragraph 8 of that report states:

“considers it essential for regional airports to have access to hubs”.

That quotation from Mr Bradbourn’s draft report is the core rationale for this Bill.

On 29 February, I travelled to Brussels to have a series of meetings with members of the Transport and Tourism Committee of the European Parliament. I had a meeting with Philip Bradbourn, with other members of the committee, with our permanent representation in UKRep and, lastly, with the chairman of the committee, Brian Simpson MEP. During all my meetings there was great understanding of the UK’s specific issue and also considerable support for the proposals contained in this Bill.

What is our unique problem? Our specific problem in the UK is that we have only one major hub airport, Heathrow. Heathrow is operating at 98 to 99 per cent capacity. In other EU member states, where there is a connectivity problem with a hub airport, most of our continental partners have the opportunity to use spare capacity to add take-off and landing slots to accommodate connectivity between regions and hub airports but because of the lack of capacity at Heathrow that option is not open to the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, the slots at Heathrow are owned by individual airlines and if airlines should decide to sell their slots or use them for more profitable international routes, that, at present, is entirely a matter for them. The implications for UK regions of this could be profound. Our regions depend heavily on connectivity as a selling point and an incentive for inward investment and tourism, and adequate access to the national hub airport is essential. What a particular airline may say about its intentions is utterly irrelevant to this legislation, but even if an airline said it will keep a particular route open, it has the opportunity to reduce cycles and still maintain that it has kept its word.

As the landing and take-off slots in the UK are in private hands, any attempt to interfere in their free sale or transfer will lead to an interest being taken by the competition authorities in Brussels. To work effectively and to protect the regions’ access to Heathrow, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to direct airport operators as well as requiring the Civil Aviation Authority to take these connectivity issues into account when exercising its functions. This may be deemed a power to ring-fence slots at Heathrow and that would have a knock on effect on their value. However, given the fact that Heathrow is operating at full capacity, there is simply no other way in the UK of guaranteeing adequate access from the regions to the hub.

I believe that our European partners will see the logic of this argument. It is, after all, consistent with the thrust of EU policy for many years to protect and promote the regions. As a former member of the EU Committee of the Regions, I know this to be a fact. Currently, the EU Committee on Transport and Tourism member Mr Giommaria Uggias of Italy is drafting a legislative report specifically on the slots issue and it is likely to be brought forward later this year.

This Bill is not region specific; it is a Bill that applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Although I may come from Northern Ireland where the effects of inadequate air links to Heathrow would be felt most acutely, I am very aware that other regions could be badly affected as well. I have corresponded and spoken with a number of interested groups in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive with responsibility for airports, Mr Danny Kennedy MLA, is supportive of ensuring adequate access. I believe that the relevant Assembly committee in Belfast takes a similar view. The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland approached me to offer support, and I have received letters from the local tourist board, the IoD, the CBI, Belfast City Airport and others.

Certainly a number of Scottish destinations, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, come to mind as well as cities in the north of England, such as Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester. Birmingham will eventually have the advantage of fast rail, and I know that plans are afoot to improve rail services to Cardiff. However, this still leaves the south-west somewhat isolated. In last week's edition of the Western Morning News, it said:

“Communications are the key to growth in the West Country”.

Some air links have been established with London City Airport, and Exeter is now a key gateway for the area connecting the West Country with Manchester. But the point remains that communications are the key to growth in the regions, and leaving the Government as a spectator, unable to intervene in the future if things go wrong with landing slots at Heathrow, is, I submit, unacceptable.

In conclusion, this Bill aims to amend the Airports Act 1986 to confer upon the Secretary of State the power to direct airport operators in the interests of ensuring sufficient national air infrastructure between hub and regional airports, and further, will ensure that the Civil Aviation Authority would also have to take into account the need to ensure adequate services between hub and regional airports when exercising its functions. I believe that these proposals are entirely consistent with current and previous government policies and are consistent with the intentions of the European Union’s policy, albeit that such policy would have to be modified to avoid a legal conflict with Brussels. The timing of this Bill sits neatly with the likely introduction of a UK aviation Bill later this year and, as previously stated, the European Commission already has proposals on the table for consultation.

The Minister, who I must thank for his assistance and that of his officials over recent weeks, knows that I fully realise that we have to act in concert with our European partners. He also acknowledges that currently HMG have no powers to address the specific problem of adequate access to Heathrow from the regions. Given these facts, and the proximity of our own domestic legislation coming through shortly, there is, I believe, a unique opportunity to deal with this issue in the immediate future. I trust that the Minister will give these proposals a fair hearing and a fair wind. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am very glad to lend my support, in the most emphatic fashion, to this important Bill, which my noble friend Lord Empey has brought before us. In this, as in other aspects of his wide-ranging work in your Lordships’ House, he draws on his great experience as a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive and places that experience at the service of our country as a whole.

We must have reliable and efficient transport services between all parts of our country, especially the more distant parts and London, particularly Heathrow with its multitude of links with the wider world. Without first-rate services between London and the regions, the many important initiatives that the Government are taking to make the United Kingdom a truly excellent place in which to do business will not lead to the increase in sustained investment that we need so badly.

It may be that we face a future in which for many domestic purposes air travel is replaced by railway travel, but this will not be universally true. In one part of our country above all—Northern Ireland—air links with London cannot readily be replaced by other forms of transport. The provisions of my noble friend’s Bill are particularly important to the people of Northern Ireland and are critical for their economic success, as my postbag has recently reminded me. Parliament must always seek to protect and safeguard the interests of Northern Ireland, a part of our country that, despite having its own devolved institutions, must never be forgotten here, in better times as in times of internal crisis.

London, Edinburgh and Cardiff are all relatively easy to reach by train—though there is plenty of room for improvement in these railway services—but Belfast would be cut off from the kingdom’s other capitals without regular air services. This must not happen, particularly under a Government who attach the greatest importance to rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy through greater private sector growth. I will not labour the point. Nothing could be more obvious than that Northern Ireland will remain more dependent on airport links to London than any of the other constituent parts of our country.

There is deep concern, as the House has been told on several occasions recently, and again by my noble friend Lord Empey this morning, that Lufthansa’s sale of British Midland International to the IAG Group, of which British Airways is the principal member, increases the chances that the pairs of daily landing slots now allocated to BMI flights, of which there are up to 56, will be handed over to external flights whose origin or terminus is outside the United Kingdom.

The reason is obvious: each landing slot that can be taken up by a long-haul intercontinental flight yields far greater profits than a short-haul flight from Belfast would bring. Businesses can hardly be blamed for acting in ways which best serve their interests, particularly in such a low-profit-margin business as aviation, but we must keep constantly in mind the British Government’s overriding duty to ensure adequate transport arrangements for all parts of our country.

Where the replacement of one method of transport by another is not feasible for economic or geographical reasons, we should seriously consider whether it would be appropriate to give the Transport Secretary modest additional powers, as the Bill seeks to do. The aim would be to ensure that where corporate and national needs conflict, national needs are not subordinated to such an extent that great damage is done to the interests of some of our fellow country men and women. This is precisely what my noble friend’s Bill seeks to do while acknowledging that circumstances will differ and that each application will need to be judged on its merit.

I emphasise again that air travel between London and Belfast will remain essential, not least to ensure that Northern Ireland’s private sector growth is not impeded. That is why organisations such as the Northern Ireland division of the Institute of Directors, CBI Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board support this short Bill. It also deserves the full support of this House.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on his timely and interesting Bill. I have great sympathy for the people of Northern Ireland, who are acutely concerned—and have been for many years—about losing the link between Belfast and London Heathrow. The link is vital for investment. All Governments put an enormous effort into ensuring that Northern Ireland is at the top of the agenda for international investment, but they will not be able to maintain that unless Belfast airports are able to link in effectively to Britain’s only hub airport.

I would be less sympathetic towards the Bill if I had any confidence that the proposed government White Paper on aviation, which we will see in the near future, was going to address the issue of our hub airport and state what is going to happen either to Heathrow or the proposals for an alternative hub elsewhere. I fear the White Paper will have a big hole in the middle—that is, a lack of policy around the crucial importance of our premier hub airport. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly pointed out, it is at the moment full and, unlike other hub airports around the world, and particularly our main competitors in Europe— Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid—it is not in a position to grow. Those other airports, of course, are busy soaking up the investment that would otherwise come to Britain.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, does not fear that the route will be lost in the short term and I think he is right about that. I do not think the new International Airline Group will, if it takes over BMI, immediately sell off the link. Indeed, IAG has made many statements over recent months, both in the British and Irish press, both north and south, stating that it will not do so, and I put some store in that.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly said, this is about the long term and not only the short term, and that is a crucial fact. If you had asked people some 20-odd years ago, “Would you not be able to fly to some of the great regional cities of Britain from Heathrow in 20 or so years’ time?”, they would have said, “No, of course we would”. In fact you cannot. You can now fly from Heathrow to only seven regional cities in the United Kingdom, whereas Amsterdam will fly you to 21 British regional cities. You do not have to be too clever to work out where international investors who are looking to have their investment meetings at a hub airport and then fly on to visit their factories or for other purposes will go to: they will go to other hub airports which are better serviced.

The temptation for a hub airport which is squeezed in the way that Heathrow is squeezed is eventually to sell off the short-haul slots because, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly pointed out, they are less profitable. The Bill at least gives some feeling of safeguard because Clause 1 amends the Airports Act 1986 and imposes a duty on the Civil Aviation Authority to protect those regional links.

I do not want to spend too much time on this—I am aware of the time factor for the House—but in this country we fail to grasp at times that the aviation infrastructure of Europe and the world is similar to the infrastructure that Britain developed first with the railway network of the 19th century. It was the first time that an industrialised national economy was linked by a rail network. There were hub railway stations, if you like, in places such as Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow Central, London King’s Cross and so on, and the hub airports perform the same function. You did not get a train from Stirling to London; you got a train to Glasgow or Edinburgh and then got your train to London. That is what hub airports do and they are crucial for the exchange.

Demand for the all-important investment meetings has grown and perhaps I may use a simple example to point out the real danger that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, seeks to address. Liverpool used to have a direct link with Heathrow. Now a Japanese businessman with a factory in Liverpool can no longer fly there unless he flies to Heathrow, gets off there with his bags and baggage, goes by train or bus to Luton—which has just agreed to expand, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie will be very pleased to know—and flies from there. Of course, the alternative—which they are all using—is to go to Amsterdam and fly direct to Liverpool, which has many links.

This is happening across the country but we are not being serious about it. That is why I say to the Minister again—he is probably bored stiff with me saying it over the years—that unless we maintain a premier hub airport that can deliver the same quality of services we will continue to lose these network routes, which will go to European airports instead or, in some cases, airports in emerging countries.

At least this Bill would give the people of Northern Ireland confidence that, like former Governments, this Government appreciate the importance of investment in Northern Ireland. That has been a driving force for us for many years given that the Northern Ireland economy had fallen behind that of the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, southern Ireland. Air links are critical for Northern Ireland. Some people believe that trains are the answer to all this but I do not. Trains are very important and I am in favour of high-speed rail but we should not kid ourselves that they will replace planes. Moreover, trains are not an option for Northern Ireland in this context.

The safeguard that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has included in the Bill sends a serious signal to the Government which they ought to take seriously. If the Minister says in replying to this Second Reading that the Government have decided either to expand Heathrow or to create a new hub airport somewhere else, then I would say that this Bill is less necessary. However, until the Government bite the bullet and recognise that their policy on hub aviation in Britain is seriously flawed and is having a profoundly damaging effect on our economy, and address that situation, frankly, there will be increasing demands for short-haul routes to be protected, particularly from places such as Belfast which cannot link with countries overseas by rail. That is very important not just for Belfast but for many other British regional cities, particularly in the north of Scotland and the far west of England.

My Lords, when I first looked at this Bill, I thought that it contained an interesting power and I was surprised that we did not already have it. Having listened to the speeches made today, I think that I am still in the same place in that regard. The main point that has been raised is that we have one hub airport. Before the previous election, I spent a great deal of time delivering leaflets in Richmond to promote certain candidates, unfortunately, unsuccessfully as it turned out. Anybody who lives in that area is not keen on expansion of Heathrow, with the exception of a Member of this House who is shaking his head. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, does not get much support when he raises this issue in his local pub, but I leave that on one side.

If we are entering anecdotal territory, I should say that as a former London Scottish player, I remember occasions when large planes flew over the pitch down in Richmond and the referee was reduced to using sign language. Therefore, I suggest that people have grounds for disagreeing with the noble Lord.

To return to the Bill, the idea that we should guarantee that our infrastructure works for the whole nation is not the most radical one we have ever heard in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to the infrastructure of different places. Northern Ireland has particular problems in that regard. It is incredibly difficult to build railways over the sea, to put it bluntly. Inverness may struggle in providing the necessary infrastructure and Aberdeen will have problems in this regard but Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, has the worst problems to overcome. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take this opportunity to reassure us in relation to where government thinking is on this matter. Everything has a cost but are we prepared to pay the cost of this provision? Everybody has a right to hear what that cost will be, and what we cannot expect to be provided. Who has been consulted on this matter? I am not sure whether the Air Transport Users Committee is still functioning.

I am told that it is. Was that committee properly consulted when the Bill was drawn up? Who else was consulted who could have had an input? I stress the importance of that to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the Minister. The Bill seeks to address the problem that we are discussing. It offers an answer to that problem. Some people may not think that it is the best answer but it is an answer. I look forward to hearing what other noble Lords have to say on the matter.

My Lords, I would like to express support for the Bill which is before us today for Second Reading. In doing so I acknowledge the exceptional work of my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in having the wisdom and drive to introduce this proposed legislation.

I do not intend to detain your Lordships’ House very long this morning. The Bill is brief but makes a most important point for those of us who live in outlying areas of the United Kingdom, as we have heard. In particular, I am concerned about the position of my native Northern Ireland where air travel is so vital to our links with the rest of the kingdom. With your Lordships’ permission, I would like to concentrate on tourism. Northern Ireland has emerged from a very dark and difficult period. Concentrating on economic regeneration and the building of modern infrastructure is the task of the local administration. One of the areas for massive development could be, and is, tourism. I give an example. As every noble Lord will agree, Northern Ireland is a beautiful area with, on the whole, friendly, helpful and amusing people.

That is very kind. However, we have one further major asset when it comes to tourism, that being that it is the homeland of the Ulster Scots people, whose relations settled in America in the 18th century and mostly shaped the southern states. Today there are 22 million Ulster Scots—or as they call them, Scots Irish descendants—living in the US, in contrast with the Irish population in that massive country, which is only 18 million. The historic interest to the Ulster Scots of the area of Ulster should be exploited without mercy to bring those seeking their roots to our shores. It is to be remembered that from our small part of the island of Ireland have come some 17 presidents of the United States, as have men called Houston, Austin and Dallas, after whom the major cities in Texas were named. Writers such as Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and John Steinbeck also had Ulster blood in their veins. The list goes on and on, and so could I, but, to the relief of the House, I will not.

Tourists from the US, many of whom have never left the States before, require the passage to Northern Ireland to be as easy as any air travel in their home country. Unless this Bill is given effect—or this provision is made by some other method—the all important connections at Heathrow to the three airports in Northern Ireland could be diminished. The domestic air slots must be guarded to ensure ease of connection from the USA and, indeed, other places in the world.

In 2010, 37,800 visitors from North America came to Northern Ireland by air. In 2011, the figure was 33,000. I consider these figures to be woefully low. Unfortunately, they reflect the lack of promotion of the unique tourist product of the Ulster Scots. However, that is a discussion for another place. Tourism has the potential to be a major industry for Northern Ireland but it will be hindered unless the issue of flights to the appropriate air hubs to connect with the outside world, and vice versa, is addressed in this Bill. I support the Second Reading of the Airports (Amendment) Bill.

My Lords, I start by declaring two interests. First, I think that I live in a more remote part of the United Kingdom than anybody in Northern Ireland. It probably takes me longer to get home than is the case with any of the Northern Ireland Peers. Secondly, I declare an interest as a former Minister of aviation. The slot problem at Heathrow used to appear regularly on my desk.

I have huge respect for the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who introduced this Bill but I part company with him on the reasons for it. I take a totally different view. I think that what he is arguing for represents pure self-interest rather than national interest and is against the commercial interests of the United Kingdom.

Let us look at other areas. What about the Channel Islands? They do not have flights to Heathrow; they have flights to London City, Stansted, Gatwick and Luton. What about the Isle of Man? That does not have a flight to Heathrow. You can fly to Gatwick, London City or Luton from the Isle of Man and you can fly to Heathrow—but you use Edinburgh. According to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, Edinburgh would become a hub airport because, in Clause 1(5) a hub airport,

“means an airport used as a transfer point for passengers from one flight to another in order to complete a route”.

Edinburgh completes that; if you fly from Ronaldsway to Edinburgh, you can fly to London. So that would be good.

If the Bill is introduced, could the noble Lord really envisage that Flybe would have to reinstate the Inverness flight to London Heathrow? I remember when that was cancelled. It would serve a number of us who live in the far north a lot better in some instances, although I have to admit that, while I was against the abolition of that flight, I find flying into Gatwick more convenient to attend your Lordships’ House than flying into Heathrow, as it is closer. Why cannot we have a flight direct from Wick? That would suit my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, John Thurso MP and me very well. There is a very good airport there; it has a long runway and is certainly a regional airport.

Belfast is rather spoilt for choice, as two different airlines fly into Heathrow—BMI and Aer Lingus. At Inverness, BMI at one stage flew into Heathrow, but it does not do so any more. From Belfast you can fly to Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick or Luton, so it has access to all the London airports.

There is also, with regard to the Bill, the question of judicial review. If the Secretary of State,

“may give to any airport operator”,

what about the case for Exeter, if it felt that it had been prejudiced by a decision of the Secretary of State? I would hate to be Aviation Minister and have that clause to deal with.

When the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Executive, he would have raised his voice considerably against any restriction on the companies that he was trying to promote in Northern Ireland. The Bill tries to restrict the commercial decisions of those who operate the slots at Heathrow and, quite rightly, the Government are not involved in that. It was the saving grace for me as Minister that the Government did not interfere with slot allocation at Heathrow. Woe betide any Government who have to take on that responsibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the question of what was happening in Europe, but under EU regulation 1008/2008 you can fly to a region but not to a specific airport. The current system is right and to take it any further would give every excuse for the French, who are far more in favour of protecting their interests than we are, to restrict Charles de Gaulle. I remember as Aviation Minister having huge battles with the French to try to open up Charles de Gaulle to our flights. So let us beware that trying to protect one area of the United Kingdom could have unforeseen repercussions. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will say that, however well intentioned the legislation might be, it is wrong and impractical.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Empey on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. I support this short Bill in so far as it is designed to protect and safeguard air access and connectivity for the constituent parts of this United Kingdom. Here I respond to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who somehow seems to think that because speeches so far had used Northern Ireland as an example we are somehow constraining ourselves to that one region of the United Kingdom. That is not so. What I am about to say applies to every region of the United Kingdom, whether Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff or Newcastle—and so on. All are, to an extent, peripheral and detached from Europe, which is why daily air access to the main airport hub in the capital city is so essential to our economy and people.

The Northern Ireland link to Heathrow is served from two airports—by Aer Lingus operating from Belfast International Airport, and British Midland International from the Belfast City Airport. Aer Lingus is the main business carrier—and I emphasise business carrier—with 62 per cent of the market share, but BMI actually carries more passengers. Between them, they provide nine daily rotations. Both carry significant numbers, about 720,000 passengers last year, on a 60-40 split between BMI and Aer Lingus. Both airlines say that the routes are profitable and, accordingly, both are necessary. In short, they are the business and social lifeline for Northern Ireland. John Doran, the managing director of Belfast International Airport, put it succinctly when he said:

“For worldwide markets, read access via Heathrow, both currently and for the foreseeable future”.

All of us here recognise the value of Heathrow slots. The worry is that the IAG—or British Airways, as it was—may seek to reallocate some of the recently acquired BMI Belfast slots and use them on more profitable long-haul routes. Set against that, we have assurances from IAG’s Willie Walsh on maintaining a Belfast service. Aer Lingus, too, has said that its Belfast International service is guaranteed, and there are indications that the airline might even be keen to expand its Northern Ireland operations. At this time, such development would be welcome. Such reassurance that Heathrow will not be severed from Belfast, and vice versa, lifts some anxiety.

According to the Northern Ireland Assembly, 2012 is Northern Ireland’s time and place, and I hope that it is right and can deliver. The region is being marketed internationally as never before. The current prowess of our home-grown golfers and plans to add a prestigious new golf course to those we already have provides new opportunities. We know that golfers love to come and play on our links courses. Properly managed, tourism alone can account for thousands of badly needed new jobs in the province. While our heavy engineering industry has declined since my youth, its legacy now rests in our light engineering and needs the sort of linkage that tourism needs throughout the globe. Hence our overriding ambition has been the safeguarding of enough daily seats to meet market demand.

Maintaining core global links via London Heathrow into Belfast is of paramount importance. While the words of Mr Walsh of IAG, and of Aer Lingus, are comforting, what if we did not have those words and statements tomorrow, the next day or next year? That is why I support the Bill, as it gives the legislative framework needed to protect our Northern Ireland-Heathrow connectivity, not just for the capital and not just to the capital but throughout the world. I commend it to all the other regions as a safeguard that ties us politically and economically within the union—that is, within the United Kingdom to which we all belong and to which all of its regions contribute, and where, I hope, the Government recognise their responsibility to ensure equity and equality of opportunity.

I speak as a former Transport Commissioner in the EU. There are three Transport Ministers here; if I have left any out, I am very sorry about that. I am rather surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, criticised the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for being involved with self-interest. I thought that politics was largely about self-interest and I do not complain about that at all, although I am rather critical in some respects of this Bill. I speak also as a former president of BALPA; I am now its life president. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, who introduced this Bill, has strong links with BALPA through his son, who is a pilot with BA. I am glad to say that another Member of this House has now become the president of BALPA, namely my noble friend Lord Monks, a former general-secretary president of the TUC.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on bringing this Bill before the House although, as I said, I am somewhat critical of its scope. This is an amending Bill to promote air traffic between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and there is no doubt that we should be discussing it. My own view is that the noble Lord has every right to focus on these problems. He has, however, skated over some of the issues which are highly relevant as far as we are concerned.

Aviation has to be viewed widely, and I am bound to say that the Bill is a little deficient in that respect. Its intention is of course to draw attention to the shortcomings of aviation to and from Northern Ireland, but in that respect the noble Lord is really being a little too narrow in his perspective. If he argues that regional airports should concentrate more on providing air services to Northern Ireland, it is incumbent on him to be more specific about where and by which companies that can be prescribed. They will, in the final analysis, have to agree with what is proposed. Providing that evidence is forthcoming, which is a moot point, I am certainly prepared to lend him my support, for what it is worth.

At present, I am more than a little confused about what Britain’s aviation policy is all about. Will all be revealed in a few weeks’ time? Will the forthcoming Civil Aviation Bill provide all the answers? I doubt it. Unhappily, all three major political parties are dodging the primary question. All have declared their opposition to the enlargement of Heathrow. In my submission, they are all horrendously wrong. If we were to start from scratch there would be a case for examining alternatives, but we are not starting from scratch. The proposal by the Mayor of London to locate an airport close to the east coast is barmy, and is of course based entirely upon political expediency. I doubt whether any of the other so-called solutions will be viable, but we shall see.

The fact is that Heathrow exists. Like all other airports it has its downside but, like other airports which are in being, Heathrow is fertile for expansion. Heathrow is world renowned but at present operates at near capacity, as we have heard. The essential issue, in my opinion, should not be how we can rule Heathrow out, but how we can expand it while making life more tolerable for those on the ground. Of course road and rail access has to be improved, and I am convinced that that will happen. Several other ameliorative solutions have to be undertaken as well, but the airport’s future capacity must be enlarged extensively. That is not an easy solution, but surely it is infinitely preferable to the other options under consideration.

The next generation of aircraft must, and I think will, be much quieter. Some progress in this direction is already occurring and will, I am sure, proceed apace in the future. Those on the ground—the thousands of people whose lives depend on the viability of the aviation industry and Heathrow, including the pilots and those working in airports and on aircraft—will accept no less. All this is perceived clearly by industry, airlines and the many whose future is intrinsically connected to Heathrow, including BALPA, many politicians and others. We should not be distracted by other concerns. As far as I am concerned, this Bill is somewhat deficient in this respect too. Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt suffer no such problems and are busily extending their services. As my noble friend Lord Soley pointed out, it is incumbent on us to ensure that, at Heathrow, we do no less.

My Lords, I absolutely emphasise to your Lordships’ House that this Bill is not particularly about connections to Northern Ireland, although I fully concede that it has the most effect in Northern Ireland, as we are the most affected. Someone once quipped that if providence had really intended man to fly, it would also have made it easier for him to get to the airport. Who among us has not fought through traffic and timetables to reach a gate in time, or felt the burning frustration of security, misplaced tickets or passports? Yet these are the misfortunes of the few—the trials and tribulations of modern life.

We are debating the plight not of the individual but of millions throughout the United Kingdom regions who are in danger of being debarred from the UK’s only hub airport at Heathrow by the vagaries of geography and aviation horse-trading. I admit that this threat is felt particularly keenly in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom’s most peripheral region and the one with the least access to Heathrow: no direct motorway link, no direct rail link and definitely no talk of a brand new high-speed rail link. No, the only practical way to get to Heathrow from Northern Ireland is a direct flight connection, something which the Bill seeks to protect in the interests of safeguarding national—national—air infrastructure.

Now, some, usually those trapped within the confines of the M25, have a tendency to suggest that we good folk banished to the fringes of the UK may like to access Heathrow via one of the south-east’s other airports: Gatwick, Stansted or even Luton. While I have nothing against any of the said airports, they are designed and geared to bring people to London, not to Heathrow. Providence may also have made it difficult for man to get to the airport, but to get from airport to airport is truly a task of Herculean proportions.

Getting to Heathrow matters, and here I speak from personal experience of my life outside this House. For the past few decades, I have had the pleasure of travelling the world on business, often to the Far East and further afield. Direct flights from Belfast to Heathrow make that possible. Without that connection, impediments to business start to mount, both in time and cost. Just how do you make a connection in Heathrow if you have first to locate and collect baggage from some other airport such as Gatwick, and then journey by cab or coach to Heathrow? That is not a pleasant prospect, but is one that I suppose I could endure—although I must admit it would probably hasten my retirement and deter me from taking every business opportunity that came my way that involved overseas travel.

More importantly, however, I am a creature trapped to some extent by habit. My ties to Northern Ireland are not purely rational. Emotion clouds my business judgment. Such influences do not weigh upon international business people looking for investment locations. Will they make the effort to visit locations in Northern Ireland when they are required to break their journey with, say, an overnight stay, and then onward travel to another regional airport before hopping on to another flight to Belfast? Some may well persevere, but some—indeed, many—will not.

Simply put, unplugging Northern Ireland’s connectivity with Heathrow disconnects the entire region from the global business community. Business people in Northern Ireland are all too aware of the pitfalls of losing access to our only hub airport on the mainland. The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce has recently examined the benefits of that link in developing our regional economy’s benefits in three key areas from an international hub: trade, foreign direct investment and, increasingly, tourism. With reference to investment and trade, it is clearly no coincidence that employment hotspots in foreign-owned companies tend to be beside airports. In Northern Ireland, which is a small open economy that is dependent on external sales, one in 10 jobs rely upon foreign investment, and half of those companies can reach their home market only through a hub airport.

Increasingly, our economy is looking towards emerging markets for growth opportunities. However, the evidence is that UK business trades 20 times as much with countries that have daily flights than those with less frequent or no direct service. If we cannot access Heathrow, we will have difficulty accessing these markets. The corollary is that business leaders in the world’s fastest growing economies are being put off from investing in the UK because of a lack of direct flights. Two-thirds of business leaders in emerging economies believe that better air connections from their home countries to European hubs mean that they are more likely to do business there rather than in the UK. If we are having difficulty attracting investors to Heathrow’s natural hinterland, what chance the regions?

My noble friends Lord Laird and Lord Maginnis have alluded to the fact that tourism also remains a key growth area for the province, much helped by the recent and continued successes of Northern Ireland’s three golfing champions, and golfers worldwide now and in the future wanting to play more than ever on our world-renowned links courses that produce such winners. However, our tourist industry is still recovering from the shock and the sights of the Troubles, and has significant ground to cover if we are to match Scotland or the Republic of Ireland in tourism numbers. Over 11 million additional visitors to the United Kingdom are expected by 2021, and many of these will travel from emerging markets. If there is no direct link from our only UK hub airport, how many of these visitors will make the jump across the Irish Sea?

Central government rightly tells the regions that the days of handouts are over and the day of the hand-up has arrived. I am all in favour of that, but it is a two-way process. The Government need to do what they can to create a level playing field between the centre and the periphery. They need to interject to redress market failure. A national hub does not serve the entire nation. By that definition, it is no longer a national hub. That, to me, is a market failing, and I commend the Bill to the House as a means of redress.

My Lords, I apologise for rising to speak in the gap, although I have given notice. I readily accept the importance of air transport in connectivity. We should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on bringing forward this important discussion. I will speak briefly about the role of—even—London Luton airport, and why its position should be enshrined as part of the air infrastructure, and to make sure that that is fully acknowledged and encouraged.

The Bill seeks to amend the Airports Act 1986. I remember that Act being introduced. It was a means of forcing local authorities to put their airport into separate corporate entities. We railed against it at the time—in retrospect, wrongly. It is bizarre to think that, before those days, we operated Luton Airport as a committee of the council. Things have moved on. London Luton Airport has had the benefit of a public/private partnership. It was the UK’s fastest growing airport last year. It plans to deal with some 10 million passengers in the current year, and is consulting on a planning application that could increase capacity to something like 16 million passengers a year, or maybe even higher. Not in any way to deny Heathrow or the arguments advanced for it, I would argue that the airport should be seen as an integral part of the London air transport network. It already serves a significant part of the collective catchment area of London airports.

Issues about connections are important. If the issue is how quickly you can get from Belfast to the capital, going via Luton could be just as fast as going via Heathrow, if you have to get off the flight and get on the train or underground, get a taxi or whatever. That is not to argue against improvements to those rail networks. The point about connecting flights is a fair one. Clearly that is more difficult to do. Even within Heathrow itself, it depends where your connecting flights are going from. With five terminals in Heathrow itself, it is not like stepping from one platform to another.

My point is that, in all this debate, the contribution of airports such as London Luton Airport should not be overlooked. It is not a perfect solution to all the issues of connectivity that have been raised by the Bill, but while there are constraints on Heathrow, whatever the future of its expansion entails, airports such as London Luton Airport have a real contribution to make. They have the benefit of having the strong support of their local communities, principally because a big franchise fee comes into the local council and helps to keep spending up, or council tax down, or both. London Luton Airport should feature, and I urge that it does feature, in the Government’s consideration of airport policy to deal with these issues as well as others.

My Lords, I had not planned to speak in this debate but I gave notice that I intended to speak in the gap and want to ask the Minister one short question. My credentials for doing so are that I was the Minister who took through Parliament the 1996 Act that this Private Member’s Bill attempts to amend. The context to my question is what this debate has been all about: the absolute shortage of capacity at Heathrow Airport. We have run out of space—we are full up at Heathrow. My question to the Minister is: what will the Government’s response be to the 70 businessmen who wrote in the Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago that they wanted a third runway at Heathrow Airport? The other part of the article said that No. 10 was beginning to change its mind about this matter—or the paper thought that it was, although we should not believe everything that we read in the papers. I should be very grateful for an answer to that question.

My Lords, if one purpose of this debate is to call out the Government on aviation policy, the kind of question that the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, has just asked certainly does that, as indeed do the speech and the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. In his excellent speech, he made a powerful case for the obvious significance of adequate transport links for regional policy. Crucially, for Northern Ireland that is bound to mean air travel. He was supported in the debate by colleagues from Northern Ireland, who indicated how crucial these air links are and the potential danger. Despite the assurances given by Willie Walsh and IAG that slots will be preserved to serve Belfast if the merger goes through, there is obvious anxiety that these assurances might not stand the test of time.

The debate is not just about Northern Ireland. As the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, indicated, Scotland has more than a passing interest in this issue, too. In many respects, Edinburgh stands to lose at least as much as Belfast. This is in circumstances in which we are all concerned about the unity of the United Kingdom—as the Prime Minister assures us that he is—and any potential threat to transport links with Scotland ought to be regarded as a very unfortunate development. Therefore, in this debate the Minister has to reply to the question about the significance of aviation policy for the regions. I might add that only brief passing reference was made to the south-west, but many who travel from there feel that they are almost as remote and limited by their links as other areas of the United Kingdom are.

We must all recognise that regional policy and development ought to be of surpassing concern to the Government. They know that our regions are ill favoured compared to the south-east. They know, when they look at the indices of growing unemployment at present and the inevitable development of poverty as a result of government measures, that a great deal of it is concentrated in certain regions. It is important that we address ourselves to the infrastructure that gives the regions a chance.

Underlying it all is the bigger aviation issue: London Heathrow is full to capacity. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, did not make a very significant point when he talked about consultation. This is not about increasing the number of flights; it is about protecting the services that we already have. That is the anxiety that underpins this measure and what the Bill seeks to address.

The worry is that, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, indicated in his contribution, aviation ought to be and is subject to commercial considerations. We all recognise that, but the problem is that the slots that IAG commands will be redirected on commercial grounds. I indicate to the House that IAG could merge with the airline with the second greatest number of slots after its own at the hub airport of Heathrow. International travel is more remunerative for the airlines than regional travel. Therefore, the danger is that IAG will use the slots for long-distance travel, particularly since Heathrow is struggling at the moment because the restrictions on international competition are quite great, as my noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Clinton-Davis indicated. We are already seeing airports such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle open up routes to Chinese cities, which Heathrow just cannot match because of its limited capacity.

That is why, when the Minister replies to this debate, he should not just respond to the Bill, although I recognise that he will address himself to its detail. The Bill raises the issue of aviation policy and the particular question of what capacity there is in south-east England, other than Heathrow, to meet the obvious demand that is presented by the regions of the United Kingdom, as exemplified by the Bill. However, it also raises wider considerations.

My party has looked carefully at the Bill. We recognise the strength of the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and are aware of its significance for the regions of the UK. However, we are not persuaded that the Bill can solve the problem that it addresses. The noble Lord has certainly cast light on an important dimension of aviation policy. However, we fear that an attempt to give the Secretary of State powers to direct airline slots will run foul of competition policy. That is why we state our position much more strongly on the response of the European authorities to this problem.

My honourable friends in the other place, the shadow Secretaries of State for Transport, Northern Ireland and Scotland, have written to the European Commission indicating that this is an issue of cardinal significance to Britain and that we are in the unique position of having a single hub airport, which is clearly what Heathrow functions as, and the regions, particularly Northern Ireland, are greatly dependent on this hub. We therefore seek a response from Europe that indicates that the bid by IAG, framed in its present terms, would create a predominance of slots at Heathrow that would be a threat to the health of the British economy in its regional development.

I have the greatest respect for the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. He presented to the House, with the greatest clarity, a problem that certainly needs to be addressed. It is not being addressed at present by the Government, who continue to indicate that we all need to wait on the evolution of policy. But time marches on. The bid is before the European authorities now, yet the Government remain bereft of any policy except one—the supremely negative policy of saying that there will be no third runway or additional capacity at Heathrow. That will not do, and I hope that the Minister in his response will also open up government responses to the more fundamental issues of aviation policy in this country.

My Lords, first, I offer my sincere congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. We have had a fascinating and informative debate, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is right to say that we should be discussing this matter today. I also commend the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for his detailed and thorough engagement with Members of the European Parliament and officials from the UK’s permanent representation in Brussels in pursuance of the Bill. He is a model of how to deal with problems of this nature.

The Bill’s aims are laudable in seeking to introduce powers that would allow the Secretary of State for Transport to ring-fence take-off and landing slots at congested London airports to ensure the future protection of regional air services, in particular to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the need for a level playing field between the centre and the periphery and the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, made some valid points about the regions.

We recognise that regional airports, including Luton, make a vital contribution to local economies and that regional connectivity is very important. For some remoter areas of the UK, regional air services are not a luxury but a vital means of connectivity, as many noble Lords have observed. I acknowledge too the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the provision of commercial air services is subject to market forces. Ultimately, airlines operate in a competitive commercial environment and it is for them to determine the routes that they operate.

It is possible, therefore, to imagine that at some future point airlines currently operating services from Northern Ireland and Scotland to Heathrow could decide to reduce or withdraw them and use the relevant Heathrow slots for alternative services. It has been suggested that we cannot leave this issue to the commercial market. However, the picture is not necessarily as bleak as the noble Lord fears, as at present there are many flights from Northern Ireland and Scotland into Heathrow and it is likely that many deliver a commercially attractive return in comparison to other potential routes; for example, as feeder flights for long-haul services.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, talked about the need to meet all demand for air passenger services. Currently, more than 18,000 flights per year operate between the two Belfast airports and the five main London airports, of which nearly 7,000 are between Belfast and Heathrow. These routes are well used, with more than 2 million passenger journeys in 2010 between Belfast and London, of which more than 750,000 were between Belfast and Heathrow. My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned some of the difficulties with the Bill and described the current situation with services. Scotland is also well connected, with more than 60,000 flights per year between Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow and London airports, carrying 5.8 million passengers in 2010. Of these, more than 27,000 were between Scotland and Heathrow, carrying 2.9 million passengers in 2010.

As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, correctly states, world slot guidelines determined by the International Air Transport Association are reflected in the European Union regulations that govern the allocation, transfer and exchange of slots at Heathrow and other slot co-ordinated airports in the UK. I note the warning from my noble friend Lord Caithness about government interference in these arrangements.

EU law provides some scope to protect regional air services by allowing member states to impose public service obligations—PSOs—to protect air services to airports serving a peripheral or development region, or on thin routes considered vital for a region’s economic and social development. It would be open to devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland and Scotland to apply to the Secretary of State to impose a PSO on an air route, should they feel that a case can be made that satisfies the EU regulation. If approved, this would permit ring-fencing of slots at a relevant London airport.

An important principle of PSOs is that they can be imposed only when it is necessary to ensure adequate services between two cities or regions, rather than to link individual airports, which is precisely the problem that we are dealing with. Importantly, this means that when judging whether a region has adequate services to London, it is necessary to take into account the level and nature of services to all five main London airports. I have to tell the House that there is currently no other mechanism for the Government to intervene in the allocation of slots at Heathrow or other London airports.

Under European law, the potential for ring-fencing slots at Heathrow to protect regional services is to be dealt with by reference to the PSO rules alone. Therefore, to create a parallel more wide-ranging set of rules would be incompatible with EU law. The Bill is therefore contrary to EU regulations because it would, in effect, override the strict criteria and processes by which European Governments can intervene on route operations. However, as already indicated in the Explanatory Memorandum submitted to Parliament on the European Commission’s Better Airports package, the proposal to amend the slot regulations provides an opportunity for the UK to highlight this issue with the Commission and explore measures to help secure, if necessary ongoing, provision of air services between UK regions and congested London airports.

That said, the prospect of securing such amendments will be challenging, and chances of success may be limited, because introducing a mechanism to protect routes that are at present well served by economically viable air services would necessitate a fundamental change to the existing applicable EU law.

My noble friend Lord Caithness also warned us about the impact on competition if the Bill were to be passed. We are currently considering what options are available that would achieve the connectivity objectives within the Bill, without having a serious detrimental effect on competition in the wider aviation market, which could affect UK aviation interests.

I am conscious that the proposed sale of BMI to the parent company of British Airways, IAG, has focused particular attention on regional air connectivity, prompting concerns about reduced flight frequency on routes on which BA and BMI currently compete, leaving BA as the sole operator on some routes from Heathrow—for example, to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Manchester—with too much market dominance that could impact on air fares.

Any competition issues arising from the proposed sale are subject to investigation by the European Commission competition authority, which holds jurisdiction to consider whether airline acquisitions and mergers may lead to a substantial impediment to effective competition in a substantial part of the EU. IAG’s proposed acquisition of BMI was formally notified to the competition authority on 10 February. The Commission’s published provisional deadline for reaching a decision on its phase 1 investigation is Friday 30 March. The UK Office of Fair Trading is in contact with the Commission competition authority in relation to the proposed sale. Noble Lords will appreciate that the sale of BMI is a commercial matter for the companies involved. As the proposed sale is subject to competition inquiries, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

More generally, I assure noble Lords that a key part of the Government's approach to aviation is to seek to create the right conditions for regional airports, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to flourish. We have committed to producing a sustainable framework for UK aviation which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. We intend to consult shortly on a new aviation policy framework, which will set out our overall aviation strategy. Alongside this, we plan to issue a call for evidence on maintaining the UK’s international connectivity.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, in his interesting speech, suggested that our forthcoming aviation policy framework paper may leave a big hole in the middle of it. In the extremely unlikely case that that is proved to be correct, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, will drop me in it at least once if not several times.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, talked about tourism from the United States. He will be aware that there is a direct air service between Belfast International and Newark, New York with United Continental airlines. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, touched on the Civil Aviation Bill. As drafted, it does not cover the third runway of Heathrow or slot allocation. The noble Lord made important observations about the technical improvement of aircraft, particularly in respect of noise. He also touched on the Thames estuary airport. As the Chancellor said in his Autumn Statement, the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s hub aviation status. As part of that commitment, we will commission a call for evidence on the options for ensuring that the UK maintains its international air connectivity. We intend to publish a call for evidence alongside our consultation on the new aviation policy framework shortly.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, talked about the attractions of Luton Airport. I have already visited Gatwick and Heathrow and am due to visit Manchester shortly. I visited Luton some time ago, but I will try to do so again.

My noble friend Lord Spicer asked me about the letter from 70 businessmen. I fear that he will have to wait for the consultation paper.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, talked about the lack of business connectivity through Heathrow. It is open to passengers using regional airports to utilise other hub airports to access worldwide airlines.

In conclusion, on the basis that the Bill would be incompatible with EU law, the Government will not be able to support the Bill’s passage into legislation, nor could we entertain a corresponding amendment to the Civil Aviation Bill. I am grateful for the very sensible position of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, speaking from the opposition Front Bench, and his comments on the desirability of the Bill. However, as I have indicated, we are committed to highlighting the issue of regional connectivity in the context of the forthcoming reform of the EU slot regulations and intend to explore measures to help to secure the ongoing provision of air services between UK regions and congested London airports.

My Lords, I can see the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his place, hoping that I am going to go through a very detailed response to every speaker who has contributed this morning. I thank all who have contributed, because the debate has raised the fact that aviation issues in general are of great concern to many Members of the House. I hope that Members will forgive me for not dealing specifically with every contribution, but I want to raise a few points.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, as a former Aviation Minister, made a number of points about the commercial issues. Of course regional policy, which all Governments have followed since the 1950s, is by definition to some extent interfering with the market. If we did not interfere with the market to some extent, areas of this country would be laid waste. That is the practical reality. Why do we have the European regional development fund? Why do we have regional growth funds? All these things deliberately address a market failure. Aviation is no different. Although it would be nice to say, “Let us leave things and the market will fix it”, I assure noble Lords that the market will not fix it. At present, if you look at Heathrow, you see small regional aircraft parked that have a capacity of, may be, 34 passengers. They occupy one slot, whereas you have an A380 that may take 500 or 600 passengers for the same slot. Common sense dictates that it will not be long before someone in an airline somewhere works out that it is cheaper per head to land 600 people than 34 people.

The big issue economically, for me, is not specifically a Northern Ireland issue. I have tried to go out of my way not to make it a Northern Ireland issue. The issue is that at present, our Government, as they have conceded, have no power to intervene should the market decide to push the slots somewhere else; I got a very strong clue when the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, got to his feet. Of course we welcome and enjoy the links with Luton, Stansted and so on, but we are talking about the narrower issue; my colleague, my noble friend Lord Rogan, made it very clear as a businessman himself that, if you do not have the international connections, businesspeople are not going to travel for hours between airports at great inconvenience to themselves to get to a region. It is a disincentive which goes against the grain of all the millions of pounds we pour into regional policy in this country year after year.

Given the time, I will perhaps not address the wider issues that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and a number of other noble Lords addressed, although I have to say that we must have an answer to those questions. I come to the point about the European dimension to this. We have a unique opportunity because, by sheer coincidence, the European Union is addressing these matters in parallel with us. I fully understand what the Minister said. I have been out there. I believe we have the opportunity to make a strong case to the European Union. I believe we will have support out there—I know we have, certainly in the Parliament of the European Union. Although the Parliament is not the final decider in this case, I assure noble Lords that the growing influence of the Parliament over the Commission and in codecision-making in a number of areas will give us an opportunity in the coming months, as the year progresses, to negotiate with the European Union so that, ultimately, something like the Bill will be compatible with our European obligations. I understand the Minister’s position at present, and I do not seek to put us in conflict with our European partners. To coin a phrase that is a bit colloquial, I do not intend to go away on this issue, you know. The fact is that we have local interests to protect at home, but this is a UK issue.

I have to tell your Lordships about the destinations that are available. You can fly from Amsterdam to Belfast and, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, made clear, to far more cities than you can from Heathrow. The commercial value of those slots is, I think, between £20 million and £30 million each. Common sense dictates that, unless Heathrow has extra capacity, ultimately the only way to protect access to it from the regions will be through some form of intervention. We do not have the power to do that at the moment and we would be in conflict with Europe if we did, but I think that there may be an opportunity to do so, particularly this year, as reports are being drafted in Brussels right now. I believe that we have the ear of the Parliament and many of the people associated with it, because they are working through the same process themselves.

I strongly believe that we are doing the right thing at the right time. It may not be perfect—I fully understand that it needs a lot more work—but, if we pull together and work with our European partners, I believe very strongly that we will be able to bring forward a series of proposals that will provide a guarantee for the future. Let us not get too hung up about the commercial deals before us today. It is the long term that we are trying to protect, and this will give us an opportunity to protect regional connectivity for the long term. All regional policy will fail if we do not have adequate connections.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.