Wednesday 25 April 2001
[Sir David Madel in the Chair]
European Aviation Safety Agency
[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 14329/00]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): The proposal before us is an important one for aviation safety. Although the draft regulation was forwarded to the Council only in December last year, its origins date from much earlier. To put the issues in context, I shall briefly outline the genesis of the proposal.
In December 1996, the Commission made a recommendation for a Council decision authorising the Commission to start negotiations on the establishment of a European organisation responsible for civil aviation safety regulation, based on the existing informal body, the Joint Aviation Authorities or JAA. The Community had already legislated in the field through EC regulation 3922/91, which incorporated a number of JAA standards into Community law and provided a system for adding more.
The June 1998 Transport Council mandated the Commission to negotiate the setting up of a European aviation safety authority, or EASA, as an international organisation. In preparation for such negotiations, representatives of member states agreed a draft outline treaty in October 1999. However, a few statesnotably Irelandraised potential constitutional problems in ratifying such a treaty. That led the Council to ask the Commission to draw up proposals for an alternative Community system, involving the creation of a Community agencywhich is the proposal that we have before us today. The Government wrote to the European Scrutiny Committee on a number of occasions to keep hon. Members informed of developments, but did not submit an explanatory memorandum until the formal legislative proposal emerged. We have before us that explanatory memorandum, number 14329/00, dated 18 January 2001, and the Scrutiny Committee's report, dated 7 February 2001. I wrote on 22 March to the Chairman of that Committee to provide further information as requested and to welcome the recommendation for a debate.
The proposal is a complex and important one and we want to get it right. The UK Government have always strongly advocated working together in Europe to harmonise and raise safety standards. In taking that line, we have enjoyed the consistent support and advice of the Civil Aviation Authority. We have also worked closely with, and enjoyed the support of, the UK manufacturing and airline industries. It is no secret that we originally favoured the option of an international organisation, but we recognise that there is no future in trying to establish such an organisation if the treaty on which it would be based could not in practice be ratified by all EU member states. We have therefore accepted that that is not a viable solution within a reasonable time scale and are fully committed to developing an alternative way forward. We need to move on and we now have a real opportunity to put aviation safety regulation in Europe on a sound long-term footing for the benefit of passengers, the general public and our industry.
Detailed discussions are continuing in the Council's working group. A number of changes have already been proposed and we expect more. Various issues were brought before the April Council in Luxembourg and others will come up at the June Council. Although the Commissioner has said that she hopes for a common position in June, that is becoming increasingly unlikely: our latest information is that the European Parliament is unlikely to deliver its opinion before July.
We are debating only the EASA proposal. Although the European Scrutiny Committee originally recommended a joint debate on the aviation safety and EC single European sky proposals, we have agreed to keep the issues separate. In view of the continuing work on the draft EASA regulation, the Government welcome today's debate. I shall be pleased to respond to questions on the proposal's details and more generally on the Government's position.
The Chairman: We now have until 11.30 am for questions to the Minister. They should be brief and one at a time, so that all hon. Members may speak.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I am glad that the Minister is not limping as badly as he was earlier this week and that he appears to be on the road to recovery.
I want to ask the Minister about the institutional architecture. We are debating a Community agency; are there other examples of such an agency? The membership of the organisation will include ins and outshow will they interact? I note that the directive says that it will be possible for a Community member to go to the European Court for judgments. How will that impact on the proposed organisation and what will happen for countries that are outside the European Community but inside the agency? How will the means of control be established? Will it be done through the Council of Ministers or will a special committee be set upperhaps including ambassadors of outside nations? My concerns centre on the interaction of those two parts to ensure that the proposed body works as a proper organisation and that countries outside the EC that subscribe to the organisation are slotted in properly.
Mr. Ainsworth: The proposal is not breaking new ground. There are other examples of agencies similar to the one that is proposed, most notably the Medicines Evaluation Agency. The hon. Gentleman is right that there could be difficulties with countries that are outside the European Union but want to be inside and working with the agency. However, those countries will be able to use the European Court of Justice. There have been discussions with such countries about their preparedness, and there do not appear to be any insurmountable problems.
Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): May I first welcome the Minister on what I think is his first visit to this Committee? As a long-time Committee member, it is good to see a veteran of the Committee that considered the recent Transport Bill here. With that in mind, he will recall countless hours of debate on the aviation part of that legislation and on consultation with the Ministry of Defence, particularly on European security forces and the RAF. What consultation has taken place on the proposals with security forces across Europe and, most importantly, with the RAF?
Mr. Ainsworth: I am seeking to explain the Government's position to the Committee and, obviously, consultation has taken place in Government and Government agencies. Our approach is supported by not only the CAA, the industry and the airlines in the UK, but the MOD; neither have we had any indication of opposition or problems envisaged by other European states about that, so we do not see a problem. The directive, limited as it is to product certification and the rest, applies only to civil aircraft.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I want to ask the Minister about the 40 pages of specification and detail that apply to aeroplanes and helicopters and appear towards the end of the document. Will he tell us who is responsible for ensuring that aeroplanes and helicopters are safe to fly and comply with all the appropriate regulations, and whether that will be altered in any way by the creation of the proposed organisation?
Mr. Ainsworth: The CAA is responsible for all aircraft under the British register. It will continue to be the responsible body and to issue airworthiness certificates. However, it is important to recognise that in this area, more than in any other, we cannot simply be an island. It has long been recognised that there is a need to work together with other organisations to lift standards across a wider area, so the agency will be responsible for setting the standards according to which those certificates will be issued. That will apply to our own CAA as well as to other European CAA equivalents in the other European states that sign up to the agreement.
Mr. Quinn: Could my hon. Friend draw the Committee's attention to areas that have not been covered in the document but are vital in terms of aviation safety, and specifically the physical infrastructure associated with airports and landing strips? He is aware that I am a chartered civil engineer. I am not sure whether I should declare an interest in the debate as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Certainly in terms of codes of practice associated with physical infrastructure, it is important to know how the proposals would have an impact on design criteria, and the physical implementation of safety around our airports and airfields.
Mr. Ainsworth: The regulation covers product and type certification, the rule-making associated with product, and the setting of standards for the issue of airworthiness certificates by the CAA. There is an intention, spelled out in the documentation, to consider those other issues that are currently covered by the JAA relating to the standards that apply to the licensing of aircrew, airports and air traffic management systems. However, that would have to be covered in further regulation that would also require parliamentary scrutiny. Currently, the regulation is limited to the areas I mentioned earlier, but there is an intention to broaden it at some later date.
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): There has been a chequered and frustrating history in bringing us from the JAA over many years to the current position. I support the creation of the agency and what it seeks to do. There are a number of other important areas that the report focuses on. The Minister is perhaps not in a position to tell us when he expects the other areas to be brought within the agency's remit and for it to be a fully functioning body, but what is his ambition?
Mr. Ainsworth: It is, as the hon. Gentleman predicts, impossible to say. It has been a long road to where we are now, and there were other proposals that we supported along the way. As I recognised in my opening address, we were not able to implement those. Both the manufacturing industry and the airline operators in this country would like us to go further than the current regulation. There is pressure to do so, and much support for a European CAA. We have been at the forefront of those discussions, because we can see huge benefits, not only to our industry but to the travelling public.