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Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [HL]

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 28 January 2021

Third Reading

Moved by

In moving that the Bill do now pass, I shall make some brief observations and reflect on its passage. At the outset, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for his patience, focus and good humour in scrutinising the Bill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for her very valued input. I also thank the cadre of noble Lords who showed a particular interest in this very important Bill and shared so much of their experience and wisdom in scrutinising it. Contributions and questions from all sides were thorough and searching. We listened to concerns and made changes where needed, and we have a better Bill for it.

The Bill has had a rather longer gestation than I would have liked, but that was to be expected in the circumstances. Having been introduced to your Lordships’ House in January 2020, it entered an unprecedented period which has thrown numerous challenges at the Bill and, of course, the aviation industry. However, the Government are clear that the powers in the Bill remain critical, even in the current Covid-19 context. The need to modernise the UK’s airspace has not changed, and the Bill will help reduce aircraft noise, reduce traffic delays and support the aviation industry’s recovery and growth. Additionally, there are emissions savings from modernisation.

It has been 20 years since the establishment of an economic regulatory regime for the provision of en-route air traffic control services. The Bill will modernise regulatory provisions relating to air traffic services, provided by NATS (En Route) plc, or NERL, and regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, ensuring that the framework remains fit for purpose and continues to build on the UK’s excellent safety record. Following Report, the Bill now also enables the Government to continue to provide alleviation from the requirement to use slots at co-ordinated airports 80% of the time for them to be retained. These powers will be temporary, until August 2024, and I thank all noble Lords for their constructive engagement on these amendments. It was far from ideal to bring these amendments to your Lordships’ House before Report; however, Covid-19 has provided many unexpected twists and turns.

Finally, the Bill will give the police new powers to enforce the existing law surrounding unmanned aircraft to ensure the skies above us are safe without damaging the unmanned aircraft industry. There are, as ever, many people beyond your Lordships’ House who have helped shape the Bill—the CAA, NATS, the police and others across government—and, of course, we have a fantastic and more than a little patient Bill team who have had to shepherd the Bill through interesting times. I am very grateful for their hard work and persistence.

Speaking for myself and my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and all her officials and colleagues involved with the Bill for their willingness to have informal meetings to discuss, in an open and helpful way, a range of complex issues relating to the Bill as a whole and Parts 1 and 2 in particular. This has greatly contributed to effective scrutiny, needed technical amendments and useful clarifications and amplifications, including those read into Hansard by the—

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has been cut off, so we will proceed with the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and return to the noble Lord if we can.

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister and her officials for the time and patience they have devoted to explaining the Bill and, in particular, the many amendments. I am very grateful to them, as I am to the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, and all noble Lords who added their expertise to our debates.

This Bill is, I believe, the third recent attempt at aviation legislation. On Report, I called the Bill a bit of a mess: it is, indeed, an extraordinary saga, worthy of featuring in one of the excellent briefings we get from our Library about historic aspects of our proceedings. There can rarely have been a year between Committee and Report on a Bill, and certainly not a year of such momentous events. Covid and Brexit have both had a profound effect on aviation, and technological development meant that drone capability has greatly increased.

There are now three elements to the Bill; it started with only two. The modernisation of airspace seemed urgent a year ago—less so now that flights are at a fraction of previous numbers. However, concerns remain for airport operators about the conflict between the CAA’s new enforcement powers and other aspects of their role. There are concerns about the financial costs of modernisation at a time when airports have suffered severely financially, and concern about the requirement to release so-called spare airspace capacity for general aviation.

The wholly new section on slot waivers is a direct result of the pandemic and is welcome in order to avoid environmentally damaging ghost flights, but I remain concerned and hope that the Government will make sure that in future the rules are tightened to ensure fair competition and fair prices for consumers.

The section on unmanned aircraft has been subject to wholesale rewriting because of the changed legal situation. However, it is still far too narrow in scope, concentrating on new police powers rather than on the modern capabilities of drone technology and how drones should be used safely and effectively.

My amendment, which would have ensured a wholesale review, narrowly failed to secure a majority. However, I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will take that approach in the near future, because BALPA, our airports and airlines, as well as many drone manufacturers and commercial operators, believe that more is needed on this. The Bill now goes to the other place and I am sure that many Members there will pick up on the issues that I have referred to.

My Lords, from the Cross Benches, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, and the Bill team. I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak.

As others have pointed out, the Bill must have gained an entry in the Guinness book of records. It started life in your Lordships’ House with its First and Second Readings over a year ago. After Committee in early February, it sat month after Covid month in the pending tray, then, at the last minute, the Bill team had to drag it swiftly into a new framework—one created by that large amendment to ANO 2016 that took effect so close to Report. However much forewarned, it cannot have been a straightforward task to draft and present so faultlessly the plethora of government amendments required to bring the Bill up to date. That was a great effort that all should admire.

For the noble Baroness herself, it must have been a considerable challenge to master her brief on this complex subject so fully and comprehensively, and I pay tribute to her, too. I admit to having been something of a thorn in her side, but she willingly and courteously exchanged, both on and off the Floor, on our respective views. In her reply to my amendment on Report, she got one point spot on: she said that she suspected that I might not be reassured.

I expect the issue to resurface, but honest differences are the meat and drink of legislation. Given the complexity of this subject, the noble Baroness earns credit for her steady determination. When discussing drones a year ago in Committee, she said, referring to the future of manned and unmanned aircraft traffic management, that it would be

“a whole new world of pain.”—[Official Report, 10/2/20; col. 2111.]

I hope that the passage of the Bill has not been too painful for her. From the Cross Benches, I thank her and the Bill team for their efforts.

I am afraid that I have little alternative but to start again from the beginning, because I do not know at what stage I got cut off, so I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for that.

Speaking both for myself and for my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and all her officials and colleagues involved with the Bill for their helpful approach and willingness to have informal meetings to discuss in an open and constructive way a range of complex issues relating to the Bill as a whole and Parts 1 and 2 in particular. That has greatly contributed to effective scrutiny, needed amendments and useful clarifications and amplifications, including those read into Hansard by the Minister on Report. I know that my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe has been particularly appreciative of this way of working with the Minister and her team. It has undoubtedly resulted in a better Bill.

I also thank Ben Wood in our office for all his hard work, which has been of real value to me and to my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe on the Bill. Our thanks go, too, to all other Members of your Lordships’ House and outside organisations with whom we have worked, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

As has been said, the Bill has not had the quickest of passages through the House. It started out in your Lordships’ House a year ago around the time when, as I remember it, I was temporarily out of action. It now goes to the other place for their consideration, and I am quite sure that the work that we have all done on the Bill will assist its passage through the Commons.

My Lords, once again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I of course note the points raised and look forward to further debate in the coming months on matters relating to aviation and unmanned aircraft. With that, I think we are done: the Bill is clear for take-off.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.