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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in the debate, but especially to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, who has pursued the issue with her customary diligence. I have also been grateful for her willingness to discuss these matters with me outside the Chamber, so that I could develop a full understanding of them. Whether that leads me to giving a more constructive answer, the
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House and she will have to judge, but I have certainly very much appreciated how she has presented the issues and her proposed solution to them.
I also greatly respect the campaign conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, both in this place and in the other place before he arrived here, on the issue. It goes without saying that the Government recognise that these are issues of the greatest importance for the industry. We are certainly concerned about any possible threat to the health of crews and passengers. That involves people's general health and what may occur to them after their careers as a crew have been completed, or to passengers who leave aircraft and subsequently feel ill; but the most important concern must be the ability of flight crew to guarantee the safety of the aircraft, because failures on that front could, as noble Lords have said, have catastrophic effects.
We do not think that the proposed new clause is the way forward. The Civil Aviation Authority and its aviation health unit carry out many of the functions proposed for the new organisation. I respect the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about past failures of the Civil Aviation Authority in relation to one or two incidents. There have not been many, but any incidents are too many in these circumstances. As a result of the last discussion on this issue, the department has brought home to the Civil Aviation Authority the necessity of ensuring exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, seeksnamely, effective recordingbecause it is not right for the Civil Aviation Authority, which is concerned with the welfare and health of those on flights, not to have an effective record of when things have gone wrong or to indicate how it responds.
This Bill places a general duty on Her Majesty's Government to organise, carry out and encourage measures for safeguarding the health of persons on board aircraft. If this is not unique in the world, it certainly puts the UK Government among the leaders in promoting aviation health. We take this responsibility seriously, and we are aided in our concern by the issues identified by the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in their contributions, and by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis from his specific perspective.
It goes without saying that the Government would not want air passengers or crew to be exposed to serious health risks. The issue at hand is establishing whether and to what extent any such risks exist in cabin air. The Government are not aware of this being the case, and until there is convincing evidence to the contrary, we find it difficult to justify the significant cost which the centre proposed in the amendment would impose on taxpayers. No reference has been made to the Committee on Science and Technology. It considered this issue and said:
"The absence of confirmed cases of tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate (TOCP) poisoning from cabin air and the very low levels of TOCP that would be found in even in the highly unlikely worst case of contamination from oil leaking into the air supply lead us to conclude that the concerns about significant risk to the health of airline passengers and crew are not substantiated".
Of course, I recognise that this was six years ago, and that there may be new evidence. The Department for Transport, via the Aviation Health Working Group, has arranged for the independent Committee on Toxicitythe noble Lord, Lord Tyler, sought to make a point about independenceto review any evidence which BALPA wants to produce. This process is currently under way, and BALPA presented its case to the Health Protection Agency on 22 February as part of the preparation for the formal COT meeting, which will be held in public, possibly in May or July this year. So action is being taken on these issues, particularly on the concerns identified by BALPA, and examination will be conducted in public.
The agency is doing a thorough job. Far from limiting itself to the BALPA material, it has posed questions to the CAA and to engine-oil manufacturers. We take the view that we should rely on the COT report to help us to specify any further research needs in an area where public funds have already been invested without a link between cabin air and long-term health problems being found. If, ultimately, a need is demonstrated for some kind of action, such as design changes or regulation, the Government would need evidence to convince the other EU member states to investigate. Noble Lords should remember that air transport is never an issue only for specific legislation for all sorts of obvious reasons, one of which is that a problem with an aircraft will affect more than one national carrier that uses that aircraft.
No EU member state except the United Kingdom is currently investigating this issue. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has granted funds for research, but little has happened. The project now appears to be looking to the United Kingdom to get the fieldwork done, although that surely could not have been the original intention as we were not involved in the original scheme. We may yet participate in that project if it turns out to match our identified needs after the COT review.
I hope that I have established that this Government, beyond all other governments, are taking the issue of aviation health seriously. The current arrangements were set up in response to your Lordships' Select Committee inquiry in 2000. I might add that the Transport Committee in another place, chaired by my redoubtable honourable friend Gwyneth Dunwoody, only last month completed a thorough series of evidence sessions into the work of the Civil Aviation Authority. The committee had the advantage of seeing the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the answers that I gave, which he said were less than satisfactory in some areas, and considered all those factors, too.
During those hearings, BALPA representatives put forward their views on cabin air. However, the Transport Committee did not pursue this issue when it came to question my honourable friend the Aviation
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Minister. It would be a brave Member of this House, particularly a Member with experience of the other place, who would say that this was through the neglect or timidity of a Select Committee chaired by my honourable friend in the other place. I therefore conclude that serious consideration of these issues may not quite lead to the conclusions reached by the noble Countess in proposing her amendment. This is a serious issue, which we are addressing. We do not think that establishing a new organisation of the sort suggested in this amendment is warranted.
I have a little note in my hand saying that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me six quick questions. I have listed them: they are not quick, they are not easy, and I shall not be able to answer them in such a short time. I am sure that the noble Lord will forgive me for that. He asked who was responsible for the safety of passengers and crew. The Department for Transport is responsible. We are responsible for aircraft flying under UK auspices and from UK airports, and we will not renege on that responsibility. On the specific cases which the noble Lord mentioned, he will have to forgive me if, in this general debate, I cannot reply to him in detail now.
I congratulate again the noble Countess on her pursuit of a very serious issue, which we take very seriously. Her contribution to this debate is of great importance, as is that of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. We do not, however, think that the proposed solution in this amendment is the way forward. I hope she will recognise that we are tackling the issue seriously and respect her views, and that she will be prepared to withdraw her amendment.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister called in aid the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report. Need I remind him that it did not say that there was no problem over contaminated air and that it recommended that air quality in cabins and cockpits should be regularly monitored? It is now six years later and no such monitoring has taken place. The big problem is that there is a conflict, which I have tried to highlight, between the "them" and the "us". There is a perception that the CAA, the aircraft manufacturers and the airline operators are in leaguefor want of another wordbecause they are there to make a profit. They have to keep aeroplanes flying and will do it at any cost. That cost, unfortunately, has been the livelihood of quite a number of pilots, if not their lives. We cannot know how many pilots have lost their lives because of that: there is no record of the air quality at the time an air crash described as "pilot error" takes place. How can we know?
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