New Clause A

Part of Orders of the Day — Civil Aviation Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 5th November 1980.

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Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central 3:39 pm, 5th November 1980

The Under-Secretary's speech is the second concession speech that we have heard in 12 hours. While humility has never previously been the hon. Gentleman's forte, on this occasion he has obviously decided that if humble pie has to be eaten the best way to eat it is to bolt it whole, although he did exhibit shades of schizophrenia when interrupted by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr).

What the Minister said today and what was said in another place underline all the points regarding part I of the Bill that we have made from the moment, more than 15 months ago, when it was introduced. The Bill is a massive irrelevance, even from the starting point of the Government's philosophy. However, the Government have chosen to conduct the Bill over many hours of debate with, as we now see it, a vigorous inconsequence. Our stand has been wholly vindicated.

Apart from our objections in principle to the proposed raid on public assets, we said, time and time again, that flotation in 1981 would be absurd. That argument is now conceded, because of the continuing fuel crisis, the heavy investment programme that has to be undertaken, and so on. There is no evidence to suggest that against the background of the international aviation scene the flotation could be viable in 1982, even accepting the Minister's criteria. It is unlikely to be successful in the foreseeable future. It is no good the Minister saying that the Opposition do not want British Airways to succeed. That is not true. The reality is what will happen internationally. There is no silver lining to the aviation cloud at present and it is unlikely to appear.

Of course we object to such a doctrinaire proposal in principle, but, even looking at the matter pragmatically from the Government's point of view, there is little likelihood because of the present situation—and that has nothing to do with the viability of British Airways or the way that they are conducting themselves—that that proven track record of success, which is an essential element in a successful flotation, will be available. I stress that that is not the fault of British Airways, as was conceded by the Government spokesman, the noble Lord Trefgarne, in another place on 16 October. He pointed out that in 1979: British Airways', own fuel bill rose 72 per cent… . but they still managed to make a profit, more than could be said for many of their competitors. More recently, the general economic downturn has reduced airline traffic throughout the world and this has inevitably hit operators' profits, again throughout the industry worldwide."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 1980; Vol. 413, c. 1495.] Those are the facts. We are not attacking British Airways or the steps that they are taking, or the dedication of their work force to make the airline a success. I hope that the Minister will not continue to raise that bogus point. British Airways, on the Government's admission, have done rather better than most of their competitors under public ownership.

All the facts were obvious to everyone except the Ministers in the Department of Trade 15 months ago. When one considers the statement made in another place on 13 October 1980 one becomes aware of the extraordinary chronology of events in this saga of incompetence. On Friday 20 July 1979 the Government rushed out a statement. Friday is an odd day for such a statement. They refused to consult anyone about the principle of the proposals before that statement was made. In contrast, the Bill has had a leisurely progress through the House. It was not until 13 October 1980 that any evidence was exhibited that the Government were showing the slightest willingness to embrace reality. All the facts were known long ago. Why did it take the Government so long to wake up?

In the other place on 13 October Lord Trefgarne apparently failed to digest, or was not given sufficient time to digest, the implications of his statement. He said that the transfer of British Airways' assets would be made to a nominee company under the terms of the Bill. Hastily, doubtless after one of the hurriedly scribbled notes that occasionally arrive for Ministers from civil servants in the box, he had to retract that piece of misinformation. As late as 13 October, therefore, the noble Lord did not know his own case.

One of our major criticisms of the Government has been their determination to plough ahead with their doctrinaire proposals, regardless of the views of others who they could have consulted but refused to do so. I am sure that all the debates on that point will be vividly recalled by the Minister. In response, the Minister treated us to a novel series of constitutional objections to show why consultation was not only inappropriate but improper. Putting it politely, yet using the letter "B", it was a supreme example of bogus Bagehot.

This great custodian of parliamentary liberties and proprieties was not only proposing to neuter virtually every possibility of parliamentary surveillance of British Airways while they remain a substantial public stake—and this applies also to the other proposals in the remainder of the Bill; the indictment is much worse. The Government have been prepared not simply to sidetrack the management and the trade unions that could have acquainted them with some of the facts of life—the birds and bees of the aviation industry—but to sidetrack Parliament. The other place was sitting early in October, but the Government chose to make to the press a public announcement of their decision on the matter that we are considering. If it had not been for the vigilance of the Opposition in another place, the statement would not have been made in Parliament until three days later, when the Committee stage of the Bill was due to be reached. That point was conceded by Lord Denham, who said: I have done my best to find out exactly what would have happened if another place had been sitting at this moment and in what way the Statement would have been made. I can tell the House that the best I have been able to find out at the moment is that the Statement would have been made in the same way, as a press statement."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 1980; Vol. 413, c. 868.] The noble Lord was conceding that this House would have been shown the same disrespect as was shown to another place. The Government's action was offensive and arrogant, and showed little regard for the constitutional proprieties of which the Under-Secretary claims to be the custodian.

In the face of reality, the Under-Secretary should announce that he is prepared to abandon the hair-brained proposals in part I. We shall be delighted if he will establish that he is a failed kamikaze pilot. To go on with the threat over the head of British Airways is to continue to undermine stability in the airline and the confidence of the work force. Let British Airways get on with the task of competing effectively in a difficult aviation climate. Part I represents a gratuitous distraction, and it should be removed.