Clause 90 - Prescribed limit

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 4th March 2003.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:00 pm, 4th March 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 88, in

clause 90, page 38, line 12, leave out subsection (3).

This is a probing amendment. For the sake of having a limit that is easy to understand and simple to administer, we would like the Minister to explain why a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer should, under

the provisions setting out the prescribed limit, be deemed to have a less safety-critical role than others involved. In my experience—I do not know how it relates to that of the hon. Member for Luton, North—the safety of an aircraft on take-off, flight and landing, is critical.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

One eastern European airlineI cannot remember whichhad such a bad safety record that it used to make the aircraft engineers fly on the aeroplanes that they had just serviced, which focused the mind greatly.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That makes my point extremely well. I join the Minister in wondering why one would wish to fly with such bizarre carriers when there are very good carriers on these shores. It may be because our carriers do not always fly to a particular destination.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Can the hon. Lady say how her amendment and contribution answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison)?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The question on impairment of capability.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Clearly, an aircraft maintenance engineer who is over the limit prescribed in subsection (2) will be just as impaired as the others specified. A licensed aircraft maintenance engineer's role is as safety-critical as the others, and he should be subject to the same limit. I do not know the extent to which that will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury

The Minister is being mischievous. My point was that any level should be not empirical but based on evidence. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree. There is no point in setting limits for the sake of it; we need to establish what blood alcohol levels would be adverse for a particular task.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Indeed. We can discuss that in subsequent clauses. I am trying to make a simple point without being distracted by the Minister. I am delighted to hear from his answer that he is recovering his voice. I cannot understand why in the view of the Minister, the Department and the Government, a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer is perceived to have a less safety-critical role and is therefore allowed to partake of more alcohol.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

I think that we are trying to elicit from the Minister why, in simple terms, an engineer can have one more glass of wine than a pilot.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is why I said ''safety-critical''. The engineer should be just as sober as other personnel. [Interruption.] It gets better.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying but I find it difficult to hear her because hon. Members are chattering.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Hood. The chattering classes seem to be on the move.

As I said at the outset—there might have been chattering then and the Minister may not have picked up the point—a higher limit might be appropriate for

cabin crews and maintenance personnel. However, I go with the Civil Aviation Authority. If it says that there should be a higher limit than that initially envisaged by the Government, why did the Government reject that? We believe that it is just as likely that aircraft engineers could be intoxicated or have their judgment impaired because they were allowed to drink more alcohol than other personnel before they were deemed unfit for duty, and I think that that was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury was trying to make. The measure is confusing and goes against the grain of the regulatory body—the CAA. The Government should set only one limit.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the issue is confusing. I suspect that the Government's argument will be that the lower limit relates to response rates. The issue is especially confusing because on Second Reading, the Secretary of State said:

''As fast reflexes are essential on the part of aircrews and air traffic controllers, a lower limit of 20 mg will be set for those engaged in such activities. For all other aviation workers, however, the limit will be 80 mg.''—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 774.]

Who are the ''all other aviation workers'' whom he talked about? Surely we should have a definition because there is clearly a wider range than that covered in the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is absolutely right. In response to a question asked by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) in the same debate, the Secretary of State said:

''The principle has long been accepted that we ought to have measures to reduce the effect of drinking on the number of accidents . . . I shall speak about marine activities first . . . Aviation activities are slightly different''.—[Official Report, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 773.]

The consequences of accidents caused by people who are unfit for duty because they have taken alcohol and drugs are much graver in a big passenger airline than in a little recreational craft, and we have tried to explore that.

I am not talking about little general aircraft. I shall mention Bagby airport in passing because I always like to get on record the fact that it is in the Vale of York. We are immensely proud of that and we have several small two-seater passenger jets. I regret only that there is not the opportunity for the Committee to partake of a visit.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith 3:15 pm, 4th March 2003

For the benefit of the Committee and her constituents, is the hon. Lady in favour of expanding international facilities at the airport in her constituency?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I regret to say that, although the airport is called Bagby international airport, there do not appear to be any international activities. Runways cross farmland and aircraft take off over the A19, with consequences for drivers. As listeners to the Radio 4 weather forecast on the ''Today'' programme will know, although it is the most beautiful part of the country to represent, we endure some of the most

adverse weather conditions, and the Vale of York is mentioned three days out of four for that reason.

I am delighted to be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman's curiosity. Despite its name, Bagby international airport regrettably has no international ambitions to speak of at the moment. It would be inappropriate to comment on whether I would want such facilities for the purposes of clause 90 and my amendment, tempting as it is to go down that path.

Dragging myself back, kicking and screaming, the two-seater planes that operate out of a small airport are light years away from the sophisticated carriers that now exist. I have an interest in BAE Systems, as the Committee knows. I am wedded to the Airbus with its magnificent engineering and sophisticated equipment. I must also mention Boeing, which I understand will be bringing jobs to South Yorkshire in the foreseeable future.

An aircraft maintenance engineer presumably has to put bolts and screws in the right place to keep the plane together. If his ability to carry out that maintenance and repair were impaired in any way, making him unfit for duty, I would prefer him to be subject to the lower limit.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will help me. Is she saying that members of the cabin crewstewards, stewardesses or trolley operativesare subject to greater restriction than the engineers, even though the engineers have a more crucial safety function?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I was not expressing myself clearly. That was the very point that I was trying to make. Interestingly, when one reads adverts for Channel Express and easyJet cabin crew, it seems that, to be successful, one needs only to be able to swim more than 25 m in one go. I am tempted to apply, providing that age is no bar. However, I divert from the main theme before us.

It is not only a matter of putting the screws or bolts in the right place. Computers drive aircraft such as the Airbus. It is essential that the engineers who service and maintain those computers should be subject to the lowest level of blood alcohol—they should not be allowed to drink more than pilots or air crew. If one treats everybody as being part of the same workplace, from the boardroom down, which is the commendable philosophy of the pilots, why on earth should the aircraft engineers not be considered to be part of the workplace?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am slightly confused by the hon. Lady's argument; I am slightly confused partly as to whether it comes from the Conservative party. Also, I thought that she quoted with approval the response of the Civil Aviation Authority to the consultation. The suggestion of the Civil Aviation Authority was that maintenance engineers should be subject to less stringent alcohol limits than flight crews and air traffic controllers, for the perfectly sensible reason that there is no evidence that the ability of maintenance workers to carry out their duties safely is significantly impaired at blood alcohol levels below

80 milligrammes. The higher limit is considered appropriate and proportionate because speed of reaction is not as critical to the performance of duties as it is for air crew or air traffic controllers. The key requirement is to frame restrictions that make an appropriate and proportionate response.

I accept that the position is more difficult when it comes to cabin crew, so we weighed the arguments more carefully. In an emergency on board an aircraft, cabin crew perform an important safety role, so it was felt that they should be subject to the same limits as their flight deck colleagues. We believe that the procedures are proportionate and right for the aviation industry in order to maximise safety with the minimum of inconvenience for the individuals concerned.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

We will have to beg to differ. I regard not speed but safety as the critical factor. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury eloquently explained, if the ability of an aircraft engineer were impaired through drinking to the higher limit, that would, in itself, be sufficient to make him unfit for duty.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Can the hon. Lady define which ability of individuals is so impaired that it impacts on the performance of their proper role? With driving, limits apply because we know from various investigations that alcohol significantly impairs the speed of response to events; that is precisely why the limits apply to drivers of motor vehicles. The analogy transfers across to jobs where rapid response is an important element, differentiating such jobs from others.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is where we differ. The speed of response is not the critical factor for me. All these jobs have significant safety implications. If an accident were caused because an aircraft engineer put a bolt in the wrong place or failed correctly to set the computer that drives the plane, it would be a critical part of what happened.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Is the hon. Lady awarethis should help her argumentthat research suggests that alcohol not only impairs the speed of reaction in an emergency on board an aircraft, but reduces the ability to perform two or more tasks at the same time and to see distant objects? Blurred and double vision can occur, and the ability to see what is happening peripherally is weakened. Alcohol can also create a sense of over-confidence, which results in people taking greater risks. All those factors will affect the people to whom the hon. Lady refers.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is precisely my point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury would agree that judgment is as important as reacting on time. The different people are performing different functions. Some are flying a plane, making speed important, but the others are servicing the plane to ensure that it takes off, flies and lands in one piece. Is it beyond the Minister's wit to understand that? Manuals such as the BALPA technical handbook clearly say that all personnel[Interruption.] Obviously, this is not viewed as seriously as it should be by[Interruption.]

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. I have already asked the Committee to listen to the hon. Member who is

speaking. I hope that all Members will observe the proper rules of procedure and give the hon. Lady the opportunity to address the Committee. We may have a Division, so it is important to know what we are voting for.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Hood. I do not want to be accused of repetition if the Minister does not hear what I am saying.

In the Government's explanatory notes, to which the Government are wedded, we are told that the offence will be

''of being 'over the limit' ''.

We believe that the limit should be the same for all safety-critical roles. We part company in saying that that person should be deemed to have a safety-critical role, even if their reaction times are not the most decisive factor, but if their work goes to the heart of whether a plane can take off, fly and land in one piece. It would have been preferable and much easier to implement the provision had the same categories of prescribed limit applied in each case.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Bearing it in mind that the Minister has given us certain assurances, we will not press the matter to a Division, although we may return to it at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I welcome the opportunity[Interruption.] I will not put that on record, Mr. Hood. One would wish to record that the Chairman, as ever, wants the common courtesies of the House and mankind generally to be respected.

Clause 90(1) establishes the offence of being over the limit while carrying out or preparing to carry out specified aviation-related functions. We tabled an amendment to the clause, but it would be helpful to have some further clarification. Subsection (4) says that the Secretary of State will have the discretionary power to make regulations. Are they Henry VIII regulations, and will they be subject to affirmative or negative procedure? Before we reach the relevant clause, it would be helpful to know which procedure will be followed.

As we mentioned on clause 89, which was about being unfit for duty, it is important to note that an offence is committed if

''he performs an aviation function at a time when the proportion of alcohol in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit''.

I assume that that time is when someone presents themselves for duty. Will the Minister clarify exactly what that subsection means? The offence also applies if it is deemed to be

''an activity which is ancillary to an aviation function''.

I assume that the Minister will confirm that those functions are set out exclusively in clause 91. However, does that mean that the Government have rejected the

other functions that we may consider as falling within the remit of clause 90?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As the hon. Lady rightly said, the clause makes it an offence for a person to perform an aviation function or ancillary activity while over the specified limit. It sets the maximum level of alcohol permitted in an individual's body for the carrying out of the functions of the crew of an aircraft or an air traffic control officer, and it addresses the additional question, which we discussed earlier, of a higher limit for aircraft maintenance engineers.

The hon. Lady asked whether the power to change the limits by secondary legislation was subject to affirmative or negative procedure, and I can confirm that any changes will be by affirmative resolution. I commend the clause, which suitably clarifies matters for those who work in the industry.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am most grateful for that clarification. If we have to have new regulations at the Secretary of State's discretion, we will prefer them to be passed by affirmative resolution. My only concern is that the Minister did not say whether this is a comprehensive and exclusive list of functions, but it is more appropriate to consider that later.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 90 ordered to stand part of the Bill.