Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)|
BUCK MP AND
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
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
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
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
Chairman: It is not exactly rapid, is
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
Chairman: And you have taken that on
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 yearalthough it may
be that there was departmental knowledge that I do not haveis
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
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,
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
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.