Bishop of Chichester speaks in a debate on travel disruption

On 9th June 2022, the House of Lords debated the issue of travel disruption at UK airports and ferry ports. The Bishop of Chichester spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for initiating this important debate. I speak from the experience of working to support the chaplaincy of Gatwick Airport—I was glad to hear the Minister speak so positively of her experience of coming through it recently. However, like so many other parts of the aviation industry, the airport was dealt a harsh blow by the Covid pandemic. Many staff who were foreign nationals, though receiving furlough payments, went back to their home countries and have not returned to work in the UK. This affected the security department, hospitality industry and the hotels especially, and it has had a devastating effect on the economic life of the town of Crawley, which was already in receipt of investment from the towns fund as part of the Government’s levelling-up programme.

It has been hard to replace this pool of experienced workers, nor has it been easy to recruit new staff locally, especially for specialist jobs that require a significant period of training to meet a necessarily high standard of security. The Government have provided some assistance by amending airport security regulations, but there is a plea from Gatwick that Ministers do more to ensure that there is sufficient resource to process security and ID checks as well as manage the border and process passport applications.

I understand from my colleagues at Gatwick Airport that the salaries it offers in recruiting new staff are comparable to those in other airports and in other sectors, comparing well with salaries for posts of similar responsibility in the NHS, education and the service sector. We found that the package at Gatwick is sufficiently attractive to draw new staff from the police force and from British rail management, so also depleting staffing in those important services.

New staff, especially younger recruits, are experiencing verbally threatening behaviour in their working lives which they have not experienced before and find very disturbing. This rarely seems to be addressed in their training, with the result that many people just do not turn up for their shifts or have even resigned, thus creating more staff shortages at short notice on terminal concourses.

This is an indication of a serious shortage of able people from whom to recruit in order to sustain a service industry that cannot offer working from home, which has become the norm since the pandemic. Those working in the transport and hospitality aspects of tourism continue to look to government for investment in recruitment, training, maintenance of quality and delivery of service.

In this context, I urge serious consideration for the role of chaplaincy in an airport, which is comparable with a hospital, prison or school, where those served are not simply the users but the staff, who face significant challenges. Airport chaplains minister to distressed travellers as much as they contribute to sustaining the morale, professional aspirations and quality of life of staff in such places, in order to deliver the best possible service. Salaries for chaplains represent good value for money and should be required for best practice on the part of any company running one of our airports.

The successful presentation of the UK to foreign travellers is formed by first impressions. Emerging from a well-run airport at Gatwick, they will find that Network Rail has done good work on improvements to Gatwick rail station, but the quality of trains on offer is then poor. Apart from two Gatwick Express services an hour, the other trains have no provision for luggage and are often already crowded and very uncomfortable. The mix of suburban and international travellers is not a good start to a happy visit.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con, Under-secretary of State, Department for Transport): We have engaged significantly with the industry throughout the pandemic, obviously, but particularly on this issue. The Secretary of State and the Aviation Minister had an industry round table on 1 June. Minister Courts, and Minister Hinds from the Home Office, also had an industry round table on 12 May. We are establishing a strategic risk group, chaired by the Aviation Minister, which will bring together all the different elements outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

We feel there has not been enough conversation and interaction between the airlines, airports, ground handlers and security people, all of which need to come together. We need to identify the risks—I would hope the industry has already done so—but we also need to identify some of the solutions the industry can put in place, as well as more things the Government can do, because if there are more things we can do, we would be happy to do them. Obviously, we have already done many things.

We have also recognised for some time that we need to focus on aviation skills. We published the Flightpath to the Future strategy very recently, and back in February last year we launched the Aviation Skills Retention Platform, because we recognised, as did the right revered Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, the importance of staff to the sector. There is also this thing about the people who work in it: they quite like it and they want to go back to it; they feel an affinity with it. Once an aviation person, always an aviation person. So, we are trying to make sure that we keep people, at least to a certain extent, so that they have visibility of what is going on in the sector, even if they have chosen not to work in it for a certain period of time but may yet come back to it.

Consumer rights is also top of mind at the moment because, obviously, we see the distressing stories and we want to make sure that consumers are getting the compensation they need. They need the information and the guidance, and they need to know exactly what their rights are and how to go about exercising them. The Flightpath to the Future strategy has put consumers first, and it recognises the importance of government and the aviation sector working together to rebuild consumer confidence. This will lead on various consumer rights elements, and, of course, noble Lords will have recognised that we published a consultation earlier this year on ways to boost air passenger rights. We have received a large number of responses to that, and we will be publishing a response in due course.

Turning to Border Force, the right revered Prelate referred to the important work of those at the border and spoke eloquently about the role of chaplains at airports. When I was Aviation Minister three years ago, I too was struck by the work they do. Border Force has been through a period of extensive planning and resource management to make sure it is as prepared as possible for the peak demand period. We are content that we will be able to cope with the various peaks. Sometimes there will be delays, but it is not going to be massively disruptive. The e-gates have been upgraded over recent months to support the flow of passengers. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke about additional checks coming in from Europe. If they do come in—again, there is some doubt about that—they will be for PAF to undertake, not Border Force.


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