Select Committee on Transport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 583-599)



  Q583 Chairman: Minister, we are very grateful to you for coming this afternoon. and I apologise for keeping you waiting. Could you both identify yourselves, please?

  Ms Buck: I am Karen Buck, Minister for Aviation. With me is David McMillan, who is Director for Aviation in the Department.

  Q584  Chairman: Is there anything you want to tell us first, Minister?

  Ms Buck: Given the pressure of time, I am quite happy to go straight to questions. My only statement would be a rather general one.

  Q585  Chairman: That is very kind. Could you tell us what the Government thinks is the reason for the continued existence of the CAA?

  Ms Buck: The CAA is the bedrock of regulation for aviation in this country. If you look at the framework internationally for ensuring that aviation is first and primarily safe and secondly that whatever necessary regulation takes place, it is based on states having that key responsibility. I will not pre-empt questions that the committee might want to ask in terms of the European agenda because there are major changes there. That key responsibility remains, even during the period of change: safety first and foremost; economic regulation issues; consumer protection issues; and a contribution, of course, to the development of aviation policy.

  Q586  Chairman: Has the Government considered transferring the economic and commercial activities to a single transport economic regulator for all modes of transport?

  Ms Buck: We do not think that would be the right way to go. If anything, the trend is in the other direction with the way the Rail Regulator is going. We believe that effectively incorporating in a single body that key responsibility for safety and economic regulation and having those constantly acting as checks and balances against each other is very important, and perhaps particularly important in a field like aviation.

  Q587  Chairman: What will the CAA look like in 20 years' time?

  Ms Buck: It will look different because we know that the European agenda particularly has been moved into the era of the Single European Sky and the framework of EASA will reduce the number of those responsibilities. I am sure that as the framework set out in the first year of the Air Transport White Paper unfolds, there will be potential changes in that as well. I do not think we have a fixed blueprint for exactly what it will look like. In fact, we are very much at a point of flux and very rapid change. It is important to let some of that settle down first.

  Q588  Mr Donaldson: It has been suggested that the CAA should be given a wider remit in terms of promoting all aspects of aviation, including innovation, exports and sports, and that it should report to the Department for Trade and Industry as well as to your department, Minister. Would you be in favour of such an expansion?

  Ms Buck: I am not terribly familiar with the specific proposals, to be honest. I think it is very important that clarity is retained. I would not want to see anything that muddies those lines of accountability. The CAA is accountable through the Department for Transport to Parliament and we know for a fact that there are other departments—the Ministry of Defence is a good example—where there are relationships with the CAA. I would like to see that flourish. It is a very healthy development. I would not particularly want to see any muddying of the lines of accountability.

  Q589  Mr Donaldson: The CAA sponsorship statement commits the Department and the CAA to critically reviewing the Authority from time to time. When did you last undertake such a review of the organisation's continuing relevance, efficiency and effectiveness and what was the outcome of that review?

  Ms Buck: It is a fairly continuous process. We have a number of different locks into the system from the sponsorship statement through to the corporate plan and the annual report and the constant process that we have of working with the CAA in seeing how it is fit for purpose as the situation changes. Mr McMillan may like to flesh out some of the detail on that.

  Mr McMillan: I think the Minister has hit the main points. The CAA has a corporate plan which flows in some ways from the sponsorship statement, and the corporate plan is something that should be reviewed on an annual basis. The CAA reports on the corporate plan in its annual report and we take account of that. Ministers are able, through the process of regular engagement which they have with the Chairman and which I have with the Chairman, to ensure that the organisation remains fit for purpose.

  Q590  Mr Donaldson: There is, surely, a distinction between an annual review process and a strategic review of the CAA's role. Is that not something the Government or the Department would consider undertaking?

  Mr McMillan: As the Minister has just said, that is something which may be necessary in time. At the moment, we are seeing rapid change in the regulatory framework which exists in the European Union with the creation of the European Aviation Safety Agency system and the expansion of the Single European Sky. In time, and I would not like to predict when, perhaps.

  Q591  Mr Donaldson: You mentioned the corporate plan and the annual review. We have received evidence that there is poor integration and coordination between the Department and the CAA in some areas of policy development. What efforts is the Department making to improve this situation?

  Ms Buck: With respect, you might have heard a representation to that effect. I am not sure I would accept that as constituting evidence. We think we have an excellent working relationship with the CAA.

  Q592  Chairman: Minister, any evidence that we receive is evidence.

  Ms Buck: I completely concede the point, Mrs Dunwoody. I was really making the point that from my point of view it would be subjective.

  Q593  Chairman: It may not be something the Department likes but it does not mean it is not evidence.

  Ms Buck: I consider myself chastised. I take the point entirely. I would very firmly state that I believe that our integrated policy of working with the CAA is very good. The CAA obviously played a critical part in the development of the White Paper on all aspects. We meet ministerially. The Secretary of State meets with the Chairman of the CAA on a quarterly basis; Mr McMillan and officials meet on a very regular basis on all aspects of development and policy. I really would refute that evidence.

  Q594  Mr Donaldson: If you are not satisfied with the decision adopted by the CAA on a particular aspect of that policy, and indeed on their performance generally, what action can you take as the Department to deal with that issue?

  Ms Buck: The answer is that it varies according to what it is. There are some ways in which we value the independence of the role of the regulator. We might not necessarily always agree, as indeed we did not absolutely agree, despite our great respect, on the issue of financial protection. In terms of performance, I would re-state our view that there is a number of objectives set out in the corporate plan and we require and expect the CAA to fulfil constant self-improvement and meet those objectives, and the standard of doing so is very high.

  Q595  Clive Efford: Sir Roy McNulty painted a very colourful picture in expressing his views on EASA. He said: EASA is experiencing significant difficulties in getting itself set up and operating in a satisfactory way for a range of reasons [ . . . ] I think so far we are a bit disappointed with the way it has got going." Do you share that view?

  Ms Buck: Yes, we do. We too are concerned about the unfolding of EASA and the fact that there has been a number of problems in governance and funding and so forth. The Secretary of State wrote in December setting out very clearly his views to Vice President Barrot. One of the consequences of that is that a high level official meeting will take place next week to move that concern forward.

  Q596  Chairman: Between whom, Minister? Mr McMillan, who is going to be there?

  Mr McMillan: Sir Roy McNulty and I will be leading for the UK and we will be seeing our opposite numbers in the European Commission.

  Q597  Chairman: Are we to take it that that is the United Kingdom Government making representations to the Commission about the failure of a European institution to work and not wider than that?

  Mr McMillan: I am not sure I quite understand the question.

  Q598  Chairman: It is very simple. Are you going to whinge at the Commission or are you going to have a joint meeting of various people who think that this particular organisation is not working?

  Mr McMillan: There is quite a lot going on. This particular meeting which the Minister has referred to is a bilateral meeting which we are going to at the behest of the Secretary of State.

  Q599  Chairman: Okay; thank you. You are going to give us a note of what happens when you get there, are you not?

  Ms Buck: We would be very happy to keep the Committee informed. I know it has a very legitimate interest in this issue.

  Chairman: Oh, we do, we do. Thank you, Minister.

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