Select Committee on Transport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)

MS KAREN BUCK MP AND MR DAVID MCMILLAN

1 FEBRUARY 2006

  Q600  Clive Efford: In relation to EASA and the difficulties in getting it set up do you have any concerns about maintaining levels of safety and the possibility that they may deteriorate to the lowest common denominator?

  Ms Buck: Clearly that is the bottom line. As Sir Roy McNulty said, we are not in a position currently where we believe safety is compromised. I believe he said, We are not here today; we are not here tomorrow", and that is first and foremost among the motivations for driving this forward, both politically and at official level. We are very aware that, unchecked, there could be an implication for safety and that is exactly why we are absolutely focused and determined not to allow that to happen. It is not just a question of having this meeting on 9 February. The UK is taking a leading role now on a number of practical changes to raise the game with EASA, in particular looking at governance and the manpower issues which have been a key part of their delivery. There is, of course, an urgent evaluation taking place on their financial situation as well.

  Q601  Clive Efford: That was my next question. Do you think that EASA can become fit for purpose in time and, assuming that the answer to that is yes and that we are engaging with them, what needs to be done to ensure that comes about?

  Ms Buck: Yes, I do believe it can be made fit for purpose and it is still relatively early days. That is not detracting from the seriousness of the concerns that we have but it is early. It is very important also just to pull back a little bit and say that there is not an alternative. We started from the point of view of having a number of co-operative arrangements on the European aviation scene but at the level of national bodies, the Joint Aviation Authorities, which effectively were becoming unfit for purpose themselves because they lacked the legal basis for carrying out some of the regulatory functions that we needed to have. We are not starting at the point of saying can we pull back from having a European approach to a number of these measures. We have to have one. The previous one was not delivering at a time of major change what everybody regarded as an important development towards the single European sky and so we moved into EASA. We have found a number of early difficulties, some of which, such as the relatively short start-up time and so forth, gave EASA a bit of a struggle in itself but there are also some real structural difficulties that we want to overcome. We are confident that they can be overcome because they have to be overcome and the CAA will work with us as a department and politically to make sure that happens. I say to the Committee that the Secretary of State has made crystal clear that if there is the slightest doubt that safety is in danger of being compromised the CAA will step in and ensure that functions are carried out in the country.

  Q602  Clive Efford: The CAA has identified a number of inefficiencies in relationships between the CAA and EASA and some organisations have expressed concerns that there may be double charging as a consequence of that. Can you tell us what the department is doing in order to ensure that the British air industry is not disadvantaged as a consequence of that?

  Ms Buck: We have not seen any evidence of double charging. In fact, the way it works is that the CAA is carrying out some functions on behalf of EASA because EASA is not yet in a position to carry those out, but then the CAA charges EASA for those functions so there is not double charging. I think industry was looking, and quite legitimately continues to look, for there being some financial advantage in the medium term as there are economies of scale from operating some of these provisions at a European level. We have not got there yet but that is one of the promises.

  Q603  Clive Efford: The industry is concerned that there is the potential for that as responsibilities transfer and they want to see a corresponding reduction in costs and the Department is aware of that presumably.

  Ms Buck: Yes, absolutely, but there is no evidence of double charging.

  Q604  Clive Efford: There are also concerns about staffing around EASA in the fact that the slowness with which it has got off the ground has led to a lack of expertise in its employees. Do you have a comment on that?

  Ms Buck: Clearly that is part of it. Manpower and budgets are elements, are they not? They are very much at the heart of our concerns about the way EASA is operating. It would be fair to say that more recently there have been some signs of grappling successfully with those problems. There have been issues about whether some people want to transfer to Cologne or not; there have been some issues about whether the qualifications that are required by EASA fit the profile of the highly skilled operators in this country because of the formal nature of the qualifications required by EASA. We are working very closely on overcoming those. I think there have been some recent signs of improvement.

  Mr McMillan: The agency is roughly halfway towards achieving its desired manpower level and we have seen recently some encouraging signs of, for example, UK experts taking up positions. The point I would add to what the Minister has said is that we need to realise that the pool of regulatory specialists in Europe is quite a small one and it is essential that that pool is retained either within the national aviation authorities or in EASA to ensure we have safety.

  Q605  Chairman: But are you really saying, Mr McMillan, that it is not happening? The answer to the question that Mr Efford has posed is really that as an agency it only has one or two minor problems: it does not have enough money, it does not have the right staff, it is not appointing the right people, it is not at all clear what its remit it, but apart from that it is doing very well?

  Ms Buck: The problems you have just identified are the problems which need to be resolved, Chairman.

  Q606  Chairman: But on what timescale? Forgive me, but we are not talking about buses running down Oxford Street. We are talking about safety across not only a capital city but across an island which is extremely full of people and where somebody may make a mistake because someone else in Brussels has not managed to find one of these limited number of regulators to appoint. It is not going to wear very well with the people who are underneath when something goes wrong.

  Ms Buck: No, and, to be fair, I am not arguing for one second that we are painting a portrait of an organisation which is doing very well despite all those problems. It is not doing very well.

  Q607  Chairman: I would hope not, Minister, because you would have a little bit of scepticism to deal with.

  Ms Buck: That is scepticism shared. It is not fit for purpose at the moment. We recognise that picture painted by Roy McNulty. The Secretary of State at a senior political level is actively engaged in working with the Commission and with other European partners who probably started off not fully recognising this time last year that we were heading into difficulties but who are increasingly coming to the table and wanting to sort a solution out.

  Chairman: It is not exactly rapid, is it?

  Q608  Mr Scott: I have some concerns. As you will be aware, when you look back to April 2004, a jumbo jet en route from Germany to an air force base in the United States was over-flying, as it happens, my own constituency with many others, and instead of being diverted to the airport which is usually designated for emergencies, which is Stansted, it was, with one engine down, three engines with a lack of thrust, diverted to Heathrow. If we are talking about EASA not being fit for purpose or lack of safety measures, and I appreciate these things might take time, do you not think that the people whose homes that plane was flying over have a right to know (a) what was on it and (b) why it went to Heathrow?

  Ms Buck: I will ask Mr McMillan to answer on the detail of that incident.

  Q609  Chairman: Mr McMillan, do we know about this one?

  Mr McMillan: This was an incident on which there was a recent report by the Air Accident Investigation Branch which made some recommendations which the Civil Aviation Authority are urgently and carefully reviewing to see whether the current guidance which is given to air traffic control staff in this country is adequate or whether it needs to be changed. The fact of the matter is that on a tactical level it is always going to be for the air traffic control staff to take decisions about what the right thing to do is in a particular incident. This is certainly something which is being urgently reviewed as to whether the procedures which are currently in place are the ones which should remain in place in the future but, let us be clear, that is not something where competence has been transferred to EASA. That is a matter which is purely and simply for UK instances to decide.

  Chairman: And you have taken that on board.

  Q610  Mr Goodwill: When you were signing up to this EASA transfer of competences did anyone in the British Department for Transport and in any of the other Member States forecast that these problems might occur?

  Ms Buck: Let me start by repeating that it is incredibly important to say that EASA has come into being because we did not believe, and it was a broadly based belief, that the previous system was fit for purpose. What we now recognise and did not recognise this time last year—although it may be that there was departmental knowledge that I do not have—is that the kinds of structures of governance for EASA, which are very much an EU model, were not really appropriate for some of the demands that we placed upon it for aviation purposes. There has been a very sharp learning curve in all of that. Some of those issues around staffing and finance I do not think would have been predicted. It is important to say that the Secretary of State again has made very clear that there have been no further transfers of any functions whilst we remain unconvinced—

  Q611  Chairman: Yes, but we have taken evidence that in fact what is happening is that the CAA is losing people. It is what happens whenever you have put a blight on anything. It does not matter whether it is a school, a hospital, whatever it is. If you say, In the next four or five years this place is going to cease to operate", people, particularly ambitious, sensible people with ability, just put their coats on and go and we have taken clear evidence that the CAA is losing people because they do not know what the future of their organisation will be. Simply saying, We are not handing over the power until we know you are capable of doing it", is not only not a common sense response but it also happens to be a little bit tardy if you have already said, However, we are handing over most of the tasks in the not far distant future".

  Ms Buck: I accept that. There is a very difficult balancing act to be struck. My understanding of the evidence Sir Roy McNulty gave was that the continuing principle is a future for EASA and therefore that process of changeover is always—

  Q612  Chairman: I hope you will say to this Committee that the Secretary of State will say very firmly, No further transfer of powers"—

  Ms Buck: Yes, he has.

  Q613  Chairman:— will be handed over in any way to this inadequate organisation which could put at risk any of the safety of the people of the United Kingdom".

  Ms Buck: I think I can say that without equivocation, Chairman.

  Q614  Mr Goodwill: You say you would not want to compromise safety but in his evidence Sir Roy McNulty made the point that other countries have much lower standards of safety than we do and there will be some averaging out. By inference the point was that even when EASA is fit for purpose there will be some diminution in the level of safety in this country. Are you happy to see that happen, Minister?

  Ms Buck: I will ask Mr McMillan to contribute but let me start by saying that the line of that argument is at least equally applicable to the system that existed before EASA. If one is arguing that there is a variation of performance—

  Q615  Chairman: No, Minister, forgive me. The difference was that these were voluntary standards. The JAA, I think Mr McMillan will have told you, was a different animal.

  Ms Buck: It was a different animal, yes.

  Q616  Chairman: It was agreement and everybody loved everybody else and eventually you came up with some mixed mess or whatever but the reality is that we are now dealing with an organisation which has the power to order countries to comply with its rules, and the point Mr Goodwill is making is a very sensible one: are you going for the lowest common denominator are you accepting that that will be lower than our existing safety standards? Mr McMillan, do you want to have a stab at that, if I may use such vulgar language in relation to the Department for Transport?

  Mr McMillan: I do not think we are heading for the lowest common denominator. What we are heading for is a legally based European Union-wide system which is going to ensure high levels of safety across the European Union. I do not think ministers in this Government or ministers in any other governments in the European Union would subscribe to let us join together so that we can lower aviation safety standards". That is not what we are trying to do and that is not what EASA is designed to do. There are clearly some quite difficult transitional problems which need to be tackled very energetically and urgently but this is a system which has the capacity to be as robust, for example, as the much lauded US federal aviation administration on the other side of the Atlantic. It has the potential to have many advantages. We are not realising them yet.

  Mr Leech: As well as suggesting that we should not be transferring any other work to EASA until they are able to do it, should we also not be in a position where the CAA should not be running down certain of its departments because we have been told that the Safety Research Department has been run down in anticipation of EASA taking over those services but yet EASA are not providing that work at the moment?

The Committee suspended from 4.01 pm to 4.11 pm for a division in the House

  Q617 Mrs Ellman: We have had information that the CAA is running down its Safety Research Department in anticipation that EASA will take that over. Are you aware of that?

  Mr McMillan: As I understand what the CAA is doing, after consultation with the industry, which effectively pays for the research which the CAA contracts for, it is running down research in those areas where competence will be passing to EASA.

  Q618  Chairman: I am sorry; we need to be clear about this. Which areas are those?

  Mr McMillan: The areas which are being passed to EASA, for example, certification and airworthiness, research in those areas it has run down and so the industry will not be paying twice, if you like, for research. They will continue research, in my understanding, in other areas where they have been active but they will not conduct research in areas where EASA will be active. The unfortunate part, as I am sure you well know, is that EASA is not yet active in those areas of research.

  Q619  Mrs Ellman: Are you saying then that in these areas the research is being run down before EASA is doing that research itself?

  Mr McMillan: As I understand it that is the position on a temporary basis and the CAA has been encouraging EASA to get its act together and to start a research programme in those areas.


 
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