European Union Aviation Safety Agency - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 19 March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 2:45, 19 March 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for putting down this important Question and welcome the Minister to his new role. I hope he will take it in the right way when I say that I hope it is only temporary and that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, will be back soon.

In the Government’s framework document for the UK-EU partnership, published in June 2018, the section on transport has this to say:

“We seek a comprehensive agreement on air transport, providing continuity of services and opportunities, supporting growth and innovation in the future.”

On EASA specifically, it says that participation would mean:

“Regulatory burdens for businesses would be minimised across Europe, supporting continuous improved safety outcomes for all. We would continue to provide our technical expertise.”

It goes on to say:

The Commission has said that the UK will not have an automatic membership, but there is an established legal mechanism for third country EASA participation.”

So far, so logical, and strongly supported by the industry and, at the time, by the CAA. Wind forward to 6 March this year and reports suddenly appear in trade journals in the US that the Secretary of State has announced to them—not to Parliament or to the industry in the UK, but in the US—that the UK will be leaving EASA. On 9 March, I was at an aviation-related event attended by hundreds of senior industry representatives. Their anger was palpable: “A huge own goal” and “You do not negotiate with people’s safety” are two of the comments that stick in my mind.

Ironically, the Secretary of State was the keynote speaker. He came to the stage to thin applause. He chose not to refer to the elephant in the room, omitting to mention the whole topic of EASA. He left the stage to even thinner applause. On 12 March, the Secretary of State finally addressed the issue in the Commons in answer to a Question. He stated that EASA membership was incompatible with the Government’s red lines on the ECJ.

The aviation industry wants a number of questions answered. Why can the UK not follow the Swiss precedent and seek associate membership, which would allow the UK to continue to influence regulations? Instead of ECJ competence, there would be a joint EU-UK committee to resolve disputes. Do the Government appreciate that EASA membership is the most cost-effective and practical way to improve aviation safety? Safety is at the forefront of the travelling public’s mind. Have the Government made any assessment of the ability of the CAA—within the timescale of before the end of this year, which is very tight—to hire and train staff to issue licences and approvals once the UK becomes a third country? It is estimated that this process will take five to 10 years to fully implement, at a cost of up to £40 million a year, compared with an annual cost of £1 million to £4 million for EASA membership. By the way, EASA has a lot of British employees working abroad, and the word so far is that they are not falling over themselves to come back home.

Where does the demand to leave EASA come from? The only section of the industry which seems to think it a good idea consists of those involved with small-scale private aviation, who venture little outside the UK. The vast majority of those involved in aviation recognise that this is not a “little island” activity. It requires an international perspective, almost by definition.

Have the Government considered the impact on those involved in pilot training, especially commercial flight training? In order to be able to continue to train pilots for European airlines, such as easyJet and Ryanair, they will need to re-register the whole of their operation and individual instructor licences with an EU country.

What discussions have the Government had with industry representatives about this decision? I mean not just representatives from ADS—a big organisation which represents over 1,000 firms—but with the big individual manufacturers and airlines, and specifically with the thousands of SMEs in the supply chain? This will hit areas outside London hardest of all, since 90% of aerospace jobs are located outside the prosperous south-east of England.

The Secretary of State made his announcement on 6 March; his timing was spectacularly bad. At that event on 9 March, people were referring to hitting an industry when it was already down, as Flybe had already failed and the impact of coronavirus was already being felt throughout the sector. But I do not think anyone there realised how rapidly and drastically things would escalate. They need help, not additional hurdles. Of course people will fly again and companies will rebuild, but some of them, particularly SMEs, will fail entirely.

Even in good times, the decision to leave EASA was a typical example of ideology outbidding common sense. I hope that the events of the last two weeks have led the Government to reconsider and that, when he replies to this debate, the Minister can reassure us that this latest example of Brexiteer bravado is being rapidly reconsidered.