European Aviation Safety Agency

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Mr. Stevenson: My hon. Friend the Minister makes an important point. Does he agree that the success of the CAA has been largely due to the fact that it is almost free-standing? That leads to the question of how much autonomy the EASA will have. The documents state that the EASA will be required to assist the Commission, rather than the other way around.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was just about to move on to the points raised by my hon. Friend, who will see that I have been leafing through his interrogation of people on this issue in past forums.

His comments about the degree of autonomy are right. It is key that we get the right balance between what is contained in the treaty, the powers that are given to the Commission and the autonomy given to the agency. If we do not have a sufficiently autonomous agency, we will not achieve anything or have the kind of body we want. My hon. Friend has got to the crux of the matter, but I am not sure that some of the issues that he raised and the phraseology that he used to support his argument—which was that we were giving away power to the Commission—are correct. The debate will continue, and I will think about what he has said. However, if we want aviation safety measures effectively enforced across the continent, a legal framework set up for that and the legal powers to make sure that others are subjected to inspection—and, if necessary, action as a last resort—who else does my hon. Friend think will provide support to the Commission? The Commission will not contain the expertise. We will be looking to the agency to contain and develop the expertise that will not only assist the Commission to do its job, but provoke the Commission to examine what is necessary to advance aviation safety.

My hon. Friend mentioned looking to the agency to advise the Commission. The Commission will need the advice of a reputable, high-calibre agency in exactly the same way as the British Government badly need the CAA to provide necessary advice about the existing legal framework.

Mr. Stevenson: I entirely accept what my hon. Friend has said. One can find millions of reasons not to take action, rather than looking for the relatively few reasons why we should. I will be content if, as I hope will be the case, the CAA will be responsible for implementing the decisions of the EASA in the UK. I also hope that the EASA is as free-standing as possible, so that high quality expertise within it can develop. I remain concerned that, in the first instance, the agency will be accountable to the Commission, whose record on monitoring and implementing a swathe of European regulations does not fill me with the greatest confidence.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not mind admitting that my hon. Friend has sufficient background in the subject to be ahead of me in some parts of it. He is absolutely right that we need the CAA to continue as the body implementing the standards provided by the EASA. We need its ability and input to ensure that the EASA is working and developing a reputation like that of the CAA. If the CAA were asked to give certification at an inappropriate standard, it would not be slow in saying so to the European agency, as well as making the British Government well aware that it did not think that the agency was working as effectively as it should be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South mentioned another important concern. Reading his earlier comments—and listening to his remarks here—about the difference between standards and implementation, I, too, am concerned. I will continue to discuss that with him, and follow it up with officials. I have had lengthy discussions to try to understand where the difference lies. Although he is right that standards are not uniform, the main problem in achieving high safety levels is in the implementation, control, verification and accountability of those standards, not in the standards themselves. I know that he takes a different view on that, and has done for a long time, and I will not dismiss his arguments without continued examination of the matter.

My hon. Friend is concerned that we have said that safety standards need to be couched in broad terms. The reason is that we do not want an over-bureaucratic, over-prescriptive system, especially where the type specification of aircraft is concerned. That would stifle innovation. The industry and its expertise will develop new generations of aircraft, and while we want to make absolutely certain that they are safe, we do not want regulations that say, ``You will not do this, you will not do that'', and then prevent talent from working on the problem and developing products. That is why we have kept the terms broad.

Mr. Gill: Why does the Minister presume that, without a plethora of regulation, an aircraft producer would want to produce an aircraft that was not entirely safe? Does he not concede that if Boeing or any other manufacturer made an unsafe aircraft, which led to a fatality, its reputation and business would be destroyed? Anyone in manufacturing industry has a built-in incentive to produce a reliable product because they have to give satisfaction.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not presume that. Equally, however, I do not presume that it would be acceptable to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, or to mine, if we left the setting of safety standards to individual aircraft manufacturers and said that there was no necessity for outside agencies, Government control or international standards. The industry does not argue against that; it supports most of the existing controls and the developments that we are discussing. I reverse the hon. Gentleman's question and ask him why he presumes that the industry is wrong and that he is right about the great dangers that exist?

The hon. Member for Poole attempted to increase his credibility with the Eurosceptic wing of his party by making comments about the supremacy of the nation state, and by appearing to be unable to be pragmatic about the matter. However, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South was a bit unfair to him. I have had lots of opportunities, when sitting on the Whips' Bench, to look into the eyes of the hon. Member for Poole as some of his colleagues have put such points of view. I am not at all sure that his opinions are really so extreme. His remarks may have more to do with collective responsibility on the Opposition Front Bench than with his own views. Now I am trying to destroy my credibility with the very people with whom I tried to build it up earlier on.

Mr. Syms: I thank the Minister for his kind comments. There are genuine concerns about policy direction, as there is so much happening in a wide area, from European control to what is happening to the national air traffic control system. I am happy to commit a Conservative Government to holding a debate on aviation after the election, if we happened to win. Could the Minister commit his Government to such a debate? The House should have an opportunity to debate the topic as a whole rather than in bite-sized chunks.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know exactly what the hon. Gentleman means. We are having a debate on aviation now. The debates will take place not only in this Committee and end at one o'clock; they will go on. If he thinks that I can expect businesses managers in a future Parliament to allocate a day of parliamentary time for a debate on aviation, he is wrong. He well knows that I could not do that for this Parliament, never mind the next.

The hon. Member for Poole is right that there are genuine concerns, and he has raised some of them. The debate must continue. He tried to hint that I was suggesting that the Irish were to blame for the failure of the international dimension to the proposed European air safety committee. I was not trying to say that; I was pointing out that we believed that a way could have been found around the constitutional problems. I say that quite freely. We did not do so, and the opportunity was lost. We now have the proposal that is before us; nothing else.

The hon. Member for Poole suggested that this kind of process would have more credibility if we sought to do existing things well before we moved on. If he looks at the proposal, he will see that the overwhelming majority of measures in the regulation concern existing areas; those that already operate beyond the boundaries of simply UK control. I hope that he does not believe that no one should look further and examine other areas in which it might be appropriate to have more than national control in the interests of safety and the development of the industry.

The hon. Member for Poole rightly says that we have a successful aviation industry in this country, and we do not want to lose it. That is why we are putting forward the proposal. We believe that it is in the interests of the development, competitiveness and safety of the industry. I commend it to the Committee.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 1.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Chaytor, Mr. David
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Dobbin, Mr. Jim
Foster, Mr. Michael Jabez
Stevenson, Mr. George

NOES
Gill, Mr. Christopher

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 14329/00, a draft Council Regulation on establishing common rules in the field of civil aviation and creating a European Aviation Safety Agency; considers that the establishment of a high uniform level of aviation safety in the Community can best be achieved by the establishment and implementation of common rules which are developed and monitored centrally; agrees that the operation of the single market would also be improved by the establishment of a Community body for the certification of aeronautical products; supports the Government's position that the model mapped out in the draft Regulation could provide the building blocks to meet these objectives by improving the present European safety regulation system, the key elements being that the Agency is endowed with the necessary powers and sufficient autonomy to exercise its responsibilities, to attract high quality staff and to make certification decisions efficiently and effectively; and supports the Government's intention to press for this approach in the EU.

        Committee rose at one minute past Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Madel, Sir David (Chairman)
Chaytor, Mr.
Dean, Mrs.
Dobbin, Mr.
Gibson, Dr.
Foster, Mr. Michael Jabez
Gill, Mr.
Quinn, Mr.
Smith, Sir Robert
Stevenson, Mr.
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert (The Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Harrow, East)Moore, Mr. Michael (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole)

 
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Prepared 25 April 2001