European Aviation Safety Agency

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Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important issue. There will be a substantial change, particularly as we move towards majority voting in EASA. The CAA will become a subsidiary organisation, because it will, in effect, carry out EASA's requests. We should ponder that important point.

Mr. Stevenson: I am grateful for that intervention, but I do not necessarily share what I think is the motivation behind it, for two reasons. The Conservative party in the mid-1980s was responsible for transferring more matters to qualified majority voting than any other Government in this country's history. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government are doing something wrong, I suggest, with the greatest respect, that he should be a little more careful, because the Conservatives' record in this regard is significant.

If we can be assured that the organisation will have the highest possible objectives and standards, and that these will not be diluted in the UK or elsewhere, qualified majority voting—in the case of the EASA's administration board, a two-thirds majority—will have definite advantages. If one thing has prevented real reform of the common agricultural policy among other things, it is unanimity, which is often a block on progress, rather than a weapon to assist it. I do not necessarily take the same view as the hon. Member for Poole, but his point is important in the context of the switch from the JAA to legally binding regulation.

My second point concerns our old friends at the European Commission. I had the privilege—or the disadvantage, depending on where people are on the political spectrum—of spending 10 years in the European Parliament and had the opportunity to see the Commission at work from close quarters. It is a tight-knit collegiate club, which does not see itself as accountable to anyone, in effect. Some people, even in my own party, may disagree. When it comes to subsidiarity and accountability, the Commission should be targeted, not the Council of Ministers; but that is another matter. We are talking about regulation that effectively gives the Commission overall control, and I am extremely worried about that.

According to documents from the Commission, one of the EASA's objectives will be to assist the Commission in its management and implementation of the regulations; not the other way round. The EASA will assist, and the Commission will have the final say. I think that that is fraught with all sorts of problems. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear that in mind when he continues his discussions about the matter on behalf of the UK Government.

The European Commission's approach is reflected by a comment in the document; that safety levels and

    ``targets should be specified in sufficiently broad terms to allow innovation and competition''.

That is Euro-speak for ``We'll control it.'' The Commission will have the say, at the end of the day, which bothers me considerably.

I want to support my hon. Friend and the Government in their approach to such a critical issue. Discussions are continuing. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend say that the Commission is hoping to reach a common position in June. That is hardly realistic, so we will have more time to address the issues.

For me, the issue is not about the UK Government being at the forefront in establishing organisations that will set the highest possible air safety standards in Europe and elsewhere. That is right and laudable, and I support my hon. Friend in that purpose; it is what the Government should be doing. However, we are moving from the Joint Aviation Authority—effectively a discretionary organisation whose decisions the safety regulation group of the CAA can implement or not—to the legally binding, legally based European Aviation Safety Agency. Then, we will be able to insist that the highest possible standards, which have applied in this country for decades—as is recognised throughout the world—are not only maintained and protected, but form the base for the EASA's activities.

If we can achieve that goal—if my hon. Friend can do so—I will fully support the establishment of an agency that will have as its prime purpose the extension of the highest possible safety standards, which we are proud and privileged to have in the UK.

11.38 am

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I have listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). In response, I point out to the Committee that if Parliament continues to give more powers to the European Commission through this or any other regulation or directive, the ability of hon. Members to answer, as they should do, to the electorate will be that much diminished.

The regulation, like every other, puts the power not with the House of Commons, nor with the duly elected representatives of the British people, but with the unelected and the unaccountable in Brussels. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed out that the regulation gives more powers to the European Commission, and he was concerned about how the Commission would exercise those powers. What was illogical about his argument was his conclusion that it is best to proceed and adopt the regulation.

I endorse the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole made in standing up for the nation state. He pointed out to the Committee that the nation state has served our country so well for so many years and is, in our estimation, the ideal structure for delivering accountable government, in a way that the European Community cannot.

The arguments and justifications that we have heard in favour of the regulation are very seductive; it is difficult to argue against anything that concerns safety. However, I cannot agree with the argument that bigger is better. It is a view that socialists can easily follow and support, and I can understand why. It is their position, but it is not mine.

At the risk of being ruled out of order, Sir David, I wish to say that what is currently affecting my constituents is the consequences of foot and mouth disease. However, what is different between now and the outbreak in 1967 is that we have a larger bureaucracy, which is answerable to the Commission and must go cap in hand to it to get permission to proceed. There is no local, regional or national autonomy, which, in 1967, could deliver answers and find a better and quicker resolution to the problem.

The danger of putting more regulations on the statute book is that although in theory they might be fine and have a broad appeal, they create bigger organisations that cover many areas and countries, and represent but an ideal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole said, if we were to divide on the regulation, I would almost certainly vote against it. Of course, I am not opposed to air safety, but I am opposed to the creation of bigger conglomerations, which, in the event of necessity, prove practically incapable of delivering decisions. They also mean that we, as Members of Parliament, are no longer accountable to our people, as we should be. That situation may suit some hon. Members; I do not know. I am not a Member of Parliament for the sake of it. I have come here to do the best job that I can for my constituents and I am always prepared to be answerable to them. We cannot be answerable if we continue to give away control of air safety, or of any other matter.

Mr. Stevenson: The hon. Gentleman refers to large organisations that are outwith our control. Will he refer also to the Joint Aviation Authority, which was one such organisation that was set up in 1990 under the Conservative Government?

Mr. Gill: I am happy to respond to that intervention, which has given me time to think of a peroration. The hon. Gentleman has given me the words for my peroration; I believe in co-operation, not coercion.

11.43 am

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I am not sure how I feel about the fact that the hon. Member for Ludlow finds some of my arguments seductive. He asked for some indication of support from the industry for the proposal. I have a letter to Lord MacDonald from the Society of British Aerospace Companies. I could send the hon. Gentleman a copy, but I shall read out the most appropriate sentence:

    ``We understand the reasoning for the EU agency, which may indeed be a practical way to achieve what the industry sees as needed as a matter of urgency.''

That is the level of support from SBAC.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned that we were transferring our power, as elected Members, to an undemocratic organisation in Brussels. After examining the regulation and its powers, I do not see that argument. We have already delegated such powers, as elected Members, to the CAA. We have decided that it is not appropriate for us, as politicians, to do that job, and that we must have a credible organisation, free from political interference, to govern aviation safety so that we can achieve the standards that we want to enjoy in the United Kingdom. Such powers have been given to the CAA.

The regulation gives some of the powers exercised by the CAA to a potential EASA. The CAA does not object to that; it has been party to the development of the proposals, supports them and believes that they are in the interest of advancing aviation safety. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman if he thinks that we are stripping ourselves of our democratic rights through the regulation.

Mr. Gill: Surely the Minister will concede that the CAA is directly answerable to Parliament in a way that the EASA will not be.

Mr. Ainsworth: At the end of the day, the CAA is accountable to the Government and Parliament, as are many other organisations. However, we recognise that it is possibly more important in this area than in any other to delegate responsibility to an appropriate body with appropriate expertise, and build up its credibility so that it can control and further the interests of the aviation industry and safety. To suggest that that is not a sensible approach is inappropriate.

I do not see the sense in having a national organisation, so that one stands alone in glorious isolation, apart from what is happening on the rest of the continent, and ignoring the fact that our industry is integrated with that of the continent and that the overwhelming majority of flights bought by our constituents, for pleasure or business, are to other countries. I do not believe that the CAA, or the industry, see any sense in that position; they believe that our proposal is sensible.

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Prepared 25 April 2001