European Union Aviation Safety Agency - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 19 March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:01, 19 March 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for instigating this debate and I thank the small but select group of noble Lords who took part in it. I thank all noble Lords who kindly expressed their good wishes to my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton. She is indeed indomitable, as they will know, and I am sure that she will be back in her place soon. As her co-pilot on this occasion, I will do my best to answer the points that have been made but I will be happy to consult Hansard afterwards and write on any further points, particularly points of detail that I am unable to cover today.

The Government have been clear that our future relationship with the European Union must reflect the fact that we will regain our legal and economic independence on 1 January 2021. Being a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency is not compatible with that, as it would require that we continue to apply EU aviation safety laws with the associated jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which we cannot accept.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned various other options, including the Swiss option. These would require the UK to continue to apply EU law, which crosses our red lines. The noble Lord also alluded to the fact that previous deals were available; I would gently point out that neither his party nor that of the noble Baroness chose to avail themselves of them. We want a future aviation relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals. The EU’s negotiating mandate does not allow for the UK’s participation in EASA, but it does set out its ambition to agree co-operative aviation safety arrangements with the UK.

We are seeking two separate aviation agreements based on precedent. We want to agree a bilateral aviation safety agreement with the EU. This will facilitate the recognition of aviation safety standards, maintain high safety outcomes and enable continued regulatory co-operation between the UK and the EU. We are also seeking to agree with the European Union a comprehensive air transport agreement that includes provisions on market access for air services, close co-operation on aviation security and collaboration on air traffic management.

The negotiation of these two agreements will enable UK and EU passengers to benefit from high levels of connectivity, choice and value for money, and will help to provide operational and commercial flexibility to UK and EU industry. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was right to point out the interconnected nature of many companies in this sector. The comprehensive air transport agreement will also facilitate the maintenance of high aviation security standards, both in Europe and internationally, and will protect the continued interoperability of UK and EU airspace.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority currently oversees most aspects of civil aviation safety in the UK. After the transition period, the CAA will take on some additional functions from EASA and will continue to ensure that the UK has world-leading safety standards. The CAA has been preparing for the possibility of leaving the EASA system since the EU referendum in 2016, including recruiting and training new staff across the organisation.

It is important to note that, unlike on participation in EASA, both the UK and EU are willing to negotiate regulatory co-operation on aviation safety. This increases the likelihood of concluding aviation safety negotiations before the end of this year and providing some certainty to industry. Given that the EU and UK will have the same regulatory regime at the end of the transition period, it should be possible to agree a bilateral safety agreement that minimises regulatory burdens and removes the need for duplication of technical assessments in certification processes.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about divergence. It will be possible, but the UK is not seeking to diverge from common safety rules unnecessarily and will only do so where it makes sense for UK industry. Outside of the EASA system, the UK will have the autonomy to regulate in a proportionate manner that effectively meets the needs of industry. We are committed to agreeing these future arrangements for aviation by the end of this calendar year.

As noble Lords know, EASA, as an agency of the European Union, is responsible for drawing up safety rules and directly overseeing safety of some aspects of the aviation system. Its remit includes the design of aircraft and parts, manufacturing, aircraft operations, licensing of aviation personnel and oversight of training organisations. The aviation authorities of individual member states remain responsible for applying many of these rules. For example, they license pilots, issue certificates of airworthiness for individual aircraft and approve most organisations based in their territory. EASA itself undertakes three main areas of work: first, advising the EU on the updating of safety regulations that apply to all member states; secondly, ensuring that the rules are correctly and consistently applied across the EU and participating states; and, thirdly, issuing some certificates and licences in specific areas—for instance, certificates for the approval of design of aircraft parts or for the approval of design organisations.

Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority undertakes most aspects of civil aviation safety oversight here in the UK. Any certificates or approvals that it currently issues in accordance with EU legislation are legally valid throughout the EASA system. For example, the CAA currently issues licences to pilots and engineers, certifies the airworthiness of individual aircraft and approves production, maintenance and flight training organisations based in the UK. After the transition period, much of the CAA’s work will continue as today, but it will also take on some additional functions from EASA. These include the approval of organisations designing products such as engines and propellers, the type certification of products—that is, approving the design of types of aircraft and component parts by issuing a type certificate—and responsibility for approving organisations based in third countries, including EU states, that supply services to the UK industry.

Under the EASA system most certificates, licences and approvals are issued by an individual member state’s aviation authorities. This means that the CAA already has the capability to provide a high-quality safety oversight regime. Further, the CAA is currently working on plans to develop its capability to meet its additional obligations and will continue to refine these plans over the coming months. It is also implementing plans to take over the responsibilities of EASA. This includes ensuring that it has the correct resources and level of staffing in place. In line with the user charges principle, the majority of the CAA’s costs are, and will continue to be, funded largely through charges on industry. However, the negotiation of a bilateral aviation safety agreement aims to minimise costs and burdens for industry.

The primary area where EASA performs certification functions for member states is with regard to aircraft design. The CAA is actively rebuilding its capabilities to undertake this work with additional resources and training.

As part of the no-deal contingency preparations, the CAA had previously engaged extensively with the UK industry to inform it of activities that would be necessary to prepare for a future where the UK was outside the EASA system. That work continues today, with regular updates to information on the CAA’s own dedicated EU exit site. For example, the CAA has already supported many businesses and individuals in securing the permissions that they would need to operate in Europe outside EASA systems—for instance, by supporting thousands of UK pilot licence holders and hundreds of UK maintenance engineer licence holders in transferring their licences to other national aviation authorities.

Provisions in the EU withdrawal Act mean that approvals, certificates and licences issued before 1 January 2021 will remain valid in UK law for a period of two years after the transition period ends. This includes those issued by EASA and other member states. Therefore the CAA will not be required to fulfil a responsibility to approve and oversee a large number of European-based organisations until January 2023. This has reduced the amount of additional capacity that the CAA has had to develop in the short term. If a bilateral safety agreement is agreed before that point, as expected, it may not need to develop that additional capacity.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about costs and benefits, and how it might be helpful to talk about how a bilateral safety agreement can help the industry. In short, a bilateral safety agreement provides for technical co-operation between national civil aviation authorities. It can help to reduce the duplication of activity and aim for the mutual acceptance of certificates and approvals. Importantly, a bilateral agreement will allow the airworthiness certification of civil aeronautical products to be shared between two countries.

In the case of the UK and the EU, a bilateral safety agreement aims to reduce the duplication of certification activity and regulatory checks undertaken by the CAA and EASA by recognising where the UK and EU aviation safety regimes deliver equivalent outcomes. This means, for example, that someone designing or building a propeller in the UK will go through fewer regulatory processes to get the product certified in the EU, as there will be mutual recognition of regulatory regimes. This means that a bilateral agreement will reduce the time and expense for an aerospace company when it comes to complying with different regulators. That will be important in minimising the regulatory burdens and costs for industry. As both the CAA and EASA will have the same regulatory regime at the end of the transition period, there will be no initial divergence in the regimes, which in practice will mean that technical recertification or reassessment will not be needed.

Importantly, there is a precedent for negotiating bilateral safety agreements in both in the UK and the EU. For example, the UK has negotiated such an agreement with the United States and Canada and with Brazil, so I make the point to my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower that this is not an untested route.

My noble friend also asked about staffing numbers. Most EASA staff are employed directly by EASA and based in Cologne, so it is a decision for UK nationals employed there whether they will remain within that agency. The Civil Aviation Authority previously had a small number of secondees working in EASA, but they have now returned to the UK.

The Government are committed to working with stakeholders to understand their views and concerns on the potential bilateral agreement. It is right that we continue to engage closely with the industry to ensure that future arrangements can deliver the best outcomes for the industry. We hope that the industry will continue to work constructively with the Government to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome for the future.

I am close to my time. I hope that has answered all the questions that I am able to answer today. As I said at the beginning, I will be very happy to consult the Hansard of this debate and write to noble Lords on any points that remain.