European Aviation Safety Agency

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Mr. Gill: My hon. Friend the Member for Poole is right to raise Gibraltar, because there is widespread feeling there that Britain has missed many opportunities to resolve difficulties that have arisen between Gibraltar and Spain by conceding so easily on many issues, not least aviation. Will the Minister tell us whether. in respect of the regulation before us, Britain will be prepared to play hardball and try to get the Spanish to take a more grown-up and friendlier attitude to Gibraltar, not least in civil aviation?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know in what respect the hon. Gentleman thinks that we have not done the business. He must realise that we have been at the forefront of developing the proposals. He seemed to suggest that, to batter the Spanish into acting on Gibraltar, we should block something that we see as hugely beneficial to the EU and our industry and population. That would not be at all sensible. Of course we must stand up on the issue of Gibraltar and hope that the Spanish Government do not allow their difficulties with it to affect other areas and prevent progress that would benefit everybody. If they do as they have done in other areas, it would cause difficulties, but it would not be constructive to adopt a tit-for-tat approach.

The Chairman: If there are no further questions, I call the Minister to move the motion.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I beg to move

    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.

The range of questions asked this morning and the complexity of many of the issues raised explains why the motion is especially long. I shall summarise the key objectives that the Government want to achieve through the draft regulation, most of which have already been touched on. The Government are convinced that Europe needs a powerful, legally based safety body to drive up standards, ensure their uniform implementation, provide efficient certification processes for European industry and present a European safety culture to third countries.

We believe that the draft regulation provides the basic building blocks for setting up a Community agency as such a body. Our aim is to ensure that the new arrangements will meet three key objectives: first, the agency itself should have sufficient responsibilities and autonomy to ensure that safety rules and certification decisions are adopted more effectively and efficiently than under the current joint arrangements; secondly, where member states retain responsibility for implementing rules and standards, they should participate fully in technical development work; and, thirdly, non-EU European states, especially those that are members of the JAA, should be sufficiently involved in the new system to ensure that we harmonise and raise safety standards throughout Europe as a whole.

Having outlined the Government' s views on some of the fundamental issues relating to the draft regulation, I commend the motion to the Committee.

11.18 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I am always happy to say that I support the nation state because it has been the most successful creation in modern history and has served this country well, but that does not mean that there are not occasions on which it is sensible to collaborate with international bodies on such a measure. Common sense should be used. The Minister will know that the Opposition were disappointed that the JAA approach was to go into the European Aviation Safety Agency as a community agency. We were not convinced that that was necessary. The Minister has explained that it was because of the Irish.

We are where we are and we ought to take note of the fact that post and pre-war Britain has had an extremely safe, well run aviation industry. The CAA has done a splendid job. We have good air traffic control. We have always had the benefit of the highest standards in Europe and some of the highest, if not the highest, in the world. There is concern that changing to a different footing, with states with different safety standards coming together, might lead to a common standard being set across a number of states that is less exacting than that currently enjoyed within the United Kingdom. We face the challenge to level everyone up to British standards on airspace policy and the aircraft industry, rather than fall to the standards of some European countries. Key questions have been raised about the speed at which the organisation is set up, the high quality of personnel required to undertake the task and, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and others, the number of staff sufficient to ensure that at every level the highest safety standards and the standards set by the organisation are specifically observed.

As always, there is a constantly shifting agenda. That causes me concern, as does the EU's political agenda to take over control of our skies. We would have more confidence in the EU's expansion into some areas if it tried to fulfil its existing responsibilities well. If the EU makes a success of the EASA and we come to respect it as a great organisation, Ministers will get a better hearing for proposals to expand the EASA's activities. As it is, when I look through the papers, I constantly read that there will be further Community proposals for a whole range of areas. Subsidiarity should mean doing things better and the EU has yet to prove its worth in many areas. The regulation is important for safety and the aircraft industry, so it must be got right.

I want the highest standards. Despite being tempted to do so, we will not divide the Committee simply because we would not win the vote. We will, however, watch carefully how the episode unfolds. It is hoped that the Community agency will do well to the extent that we have confidence about its moving into other areas, rather than feeling that after constant political battles, more and more powers are to be taken from a nation state that has discharged its responsibilities remarkably well over the past 50 or so years.

11.23 am

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): The motion is right to concentrate on high uniform standards. It refers to the critical matters of the agency's powers and autonomy, as well as to efficient and effective exercise of responsibility, and it accurately reflects the stage of development reached by the European Aviation Safety Agency. I hope that everyone will support the Government motion.

A number of important issues have been touched on in questions. The EASA supersedes the JAA. Contrary to comments made by the hon. Member for Poole, I suggest that the JAA is past is sell-by date. The JAA has been described as a camel train that goes at the pace of the slowest. In my judgment, it has not met the aspirations and objectives that it was designed to meet. I am not pointing the finger of blame at any particular section of the JAA, merely stating that the general consensus is that it is time to move on, so the proposals before us are timely. We must ensure—not merely try to ensure—that the mistakes and shortcomings of the JAA are not replicated in the EASA. If they are, we shall suffer much grief and worry in future. We are moving from a voluntary, discretionary, consensus organisation—the JAA—to a legally binding European Union organisation.

That safety standards vary is self-evident. I shall not debate the point with my hon. Friend the Minister today, but when he says that it is the variations rather than the standards themselves that are the problem, I cannot agree. Variations are from standards—which must be of the highest order—that are already set: then, we can identify the variations. The JAA has 27 members comprising a significant proportion outside the EU, whereas the new body will be an EU institution. We should not, however, think that only those outside the EU have problems with standards. I note that my hon. Friend the Minister has a copy of the Transport Sub-Committee report on aviation safety prominently displayed in front of him. I have no doubt that he has read it cover to cover and that he agrees that it is a mistake to think that only ``that lot out there'' have problems with standards. There are also difficulties within the EU.

I now come to the critical point about the negotiations. Of course it is right for the UK to be at the forefront of the establishment of a European dimension that will set and implement the highest possible safety standards. The notion that we as a country should be concerned with safety only within our boundaries is, frankly, nonsense. Many of our citizens fly all over Europe and the world, so it is important, as the Minister said, to have high safety standards elsewhere.

Let me illustrate the point. The JAA is a consensus organisation and does not possess the legal status and powers of the new agency, so member countries can either apply or refuse to apply what the JAA decides. There are no sanctions. The Select Committee, of which I am proud to be a member, asked the safety regulation group—an important part of the CAA—a specific question. What would happen if implementing a JAA agreement throughout its member states, including the UK, meant that standards in this country were lowered? The head of the group, Mr. Profit, said that if JAA standards were inadequate, the SRG would apply the higher UK standard. That is an extremely important safeguard.

The problem is that even if we are not satisfied that the decisions of the European Aviation Safety Agency are adequate, the UK will have no alternative but to implement them. That is the difference. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that that issue should be of prime importance in his discussions with other European Union members.

If we are to be satisfied that subsidiarity and added value, to which the Commission's document refers, are meaningful concepts for the citizens whom we represent, surely we must get the balance right. The highest possible standards apply in the UK because of the record of the CAA and its safety regulation group, which are without peer in the world.

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