European Aviation Safety Agency

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Mr. Ainsworth: It seems that the hon. Gentleman wants me to say that there are no significant countries outside Europe and North America.

Some disappointment was expressed by countries that are members of the JAA but not of the European Union that the original proposal for an international JAA-based legal agency were not implemented; we were disappointed as well, because we thought that the difficulties could have been surmounted. The non-EU JAA countries accept the difficulties that have arisen, but because they know that there are benefits for them as well as for the EU countries, there is no great opposition to the proposal for an EU-based agency, despite the fact that they would have preferred the original proposal to have gone through.

Mr. Quinn: Can my hon. Friend tell us anything about the proposed location of the headquarters or the staffing of the organisation? Over the last few years, this Committee has seen many similar proposals and its members have regularly asked whether that type of organisation might be headquartered in the United Kingdom, bearing in mind the significance of English to the industry. Can he give us any grounds to hope that the headquarters might be set up in the UK?

Mr. Ainsworth: The growing use of English in the EU is a great advantage to us, but there also issues of access and different countries are bidding to provide the headquarters. Our main concern has been about the staffing of the agency. We have tried to ensure that not only is it headed up by an appropriate individual, but that it has the quality of staff to build the kind of reputation that will be needed. Most of the thrust of our negotiations has been to ensure that staffing arrangements are appropriate and that the budget is adequate to attract people of the necessary calibre.

Mr. Syms: I was going to come on to that topic. The importance of high quality staff is emphasised in the Minister's letter and the paperwork. is. Whenever I have dealt with it, I have always been surprised by how small the CAA is. It has been successful because it has been able to rely on the airlines and the air traffic control organisations to ensure that safety is paramount at every level. Are we confident that there are enough trained staff given that we will inevitably lose some of our CAA staff to the other organisation? As air traffic control has already been split from the CAA, there must a limited number of people with the necessary skills. Other countries on the continent may not have our levels of excellence and there may be an initial staff shortage. What initiatives do the Government intend to take either nationally or internationally to ensure that there are sufficient staff to secure the safety standards that the agency wants to institute?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman. There is always a lack of suitably qualified and competent staff in almost any area. I have not thought about the size of the pool of labour and talent and how the agency can be set up, but I am confident that we will be able to cope. I will look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises because it is important. As for location, although we would be interested in having the organisation in the UK, it might be difficult to agree that it, too, should be based in London, given that we have secured the medicines agency and everything else.

Mr. Gill: Can I be clear on one point? There is nothing in the regulation that is not in other respects covered by existing arrangements. In other words the process is simply a bringing together on a EU-wide basis of all the existing regulations, requirements and specifications that are currently covered by other bodies.

Mr. Ainsworth: The areas covered by the regulation are all part of the work that is already done within the JAA, but they do not comprise all of the work that is done within the JAA. As I have said, people in the industry want to go much further and faster than we are prepared to go, but that is not possible. If the agency is to develop, it will be on an incremental basis. Further regulations may well be proposed, but the regulation before us is limited to only part of the work of the JAA, concentrating primarily on product, certification and other issues on which we already work within that organisation, such as pilot and airline certification standards.

Mr. Syms: The Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough has an excellent reputation. Will the regulation have any impact on it?

Mr. Ainsworth: No, it will have no impact. Air investigations will continue to be carried out by the same organisations as now. The regulation also provides that in an emergency of any sort, our CAA has the ability to react and to take the necessary action. There will be retrospective discussions, but we will maintain at a national level the flexibility to react to any emergency that might arise.

Mr. Syms: May I ask a more general question about aviation policy? The EU has its single skies proposals. Europe now has the aviation safety agency whose competence, the papers tell us, may well expand into airports and air traffic control. The Minister has repeatedly said that there is support in the industry, but I am not sure that industries always speak with one voice. Sometimes one hears a different view from Virgin, which is rather more pro-Europe than British Airways. One of the jewels in our crown is Heathrow slot allocation. There seems to be a movement of competence away from national decision making to European decisions in that area. Can the Minister reassure us that we will not sacrifice Heathrow slot allocation on the altar of being at the heart of Europe? As we all know, Europe wanted to negotiate with the United States for slot allocation and everything else, and Heathrow could be one of the things that it could give the United States. That would have a big impact on our airlines. I hope that I am not being xenophobic here, but there are still national interests that should concern us as a national Parliament, such as defending the interests of airspace policy, airlines and airports. I should like a reassurance, as we seem to be on a slippery slope.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is absolutely true that industries do not always speak with one voice; neither do Oppositions. I detected some differences during the passage of the Transport Act 2000. Some Opposition Members were pragmatic in their attitude towards Europe, but then I read the hon. Member's comment on aviation safety in which he told us in no uncertain terms that he believed in the nation state and that the Opposition were opposed to the EASA. A dogmatic belief in the nation state precludes any other considerations. Slot allocation is already an EU competence, but we retain control of Heathrow. It has nothing to do with that regulation. If we were to change that some discussion would be needed, but it is not on the table. We retain our competence in negotiations with the US over Heathrow.

Mr. Gill: The Minister mentioned that he had had several representations about the regulation. Has he received any representations from the aircraft production industry? Does it consider the regulation helpful in improving the competitive position of the European aircraft industry vis-a-vis the rest of the world?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, we have had representations from the aircraft industry not only in favour of the proposals before us, but potentially in favour of going further. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to, I will refer to some of those representations in the debate that follows the questions.

Mr. Syms: I note in the papers that there will be a stakeholders or workers board with representatives that will be consulted, and that there will be means to appeal—including an appeals board—against decisions taken by the organisation. Is the Minister confident that that will develop as an efficient organisation and not a bureaucratic body that takes slow decisions? It is important that in industry quick decisions are taken to maintain efficiency.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Government's line on the establishment of the aviation safety agency is to achieve precisely that. Once we have decided at treaty level the standards that should be applied, we must ensure that the agency's ability and structure for staff recruitment and accountability are such that it can take quick decisions within the applied competence. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, if we do not get it right, we will achieve nothing, so we have pushed that exact point in the establishment of the agency.

Mr. Gill: Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, am I right that the ultimate authority for members of the EU will be the European Court of Justice? What will be the ultimate authority for countries in the JAA that accept the regulation but are not members of the EU?

Mr. Ainsworth: There are arrangements, and discussions have taken place to allow such countries to use the European Court of Justice system to raise issues and ensure that standards are applied across the board in their own countries in the same way as throughout the EU. Those discussions are continuing with the applicant unions that are members of the JAA, and they have not indicated that there is a problem.

Mr. Syms: I note that the Eurocontrol proposals, which the Community aims to join, have been blocked because of a dispute over Gibraltar—perhaps because the Spanish believe in the nation state. Will the Minister comment on that and where we stand on Eurocontrol? He knows that the Opposition have grave concerns about the impact of the EU joining Eurocontrol, which has been working perfectly well. Does the Minister think that the current impasse with Spain over Gibraltar, which seems to skew all Spanish foreign policy, will be overcome soon?

Mr. Ainsworth: The proposals impact on other areas of work, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, but that has not been raised in the context of the establishment of the EASA.

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Prepared 25 April 2001