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Civil Aviation Authority: Aviation Safety — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:37 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation) 3:37 pm, 6th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Mr Carmichael for raising these aviation safety issues. The level of detail in his remarks shows how important the issue is for his constituency. His speech dealt almost entirely with local issues, but I am sure the House recognises that he collects more air miles than any other Member, given the location of his constituency.

I want to touch on some other matters relating to airport and aviation safety. I hope the Minister will cover them and give some reassurance in his summing up. First, with Brexit, the UK left the EU last Friday. I certainly hope that does not mean the UK will throw the baby out with the bathwater and no longer align its aviation structures and safety measures with those of the EU. Coronavirus, the failure of Thomas Cook and the growth of drone technology demonstrate the importance of aviation safety and regulation to protect services and passengers. There is no reason why the UK Government should not match the EU in seeking aviation safety and security provisions that are “as stringent as possible”. We should therefore seek as close an alignment as possible with the EU on such matters.

It would be totally unacceptable for flight safety to be put at risk because of the Government’s view on Europe after Brexit, or because the Government had some rigid view about non-alignment in matters of airline and aviation safety. The European Commission said that a deal with the UK on a future post-Brexit relationship should secure aviation safety and security provisions that are, as I said, “as stringent as possible.”

According to the 33-page paper outlining the draft negotiating directives, the negotiations could give British-registered airlines so-called fifth freedom rights, which allow airlines to fly to a foreign country and then onward to a third destination,

“taking into account the geographical proximity of the United Kingdom”.

However, the document also notes that

“the United Kingdom, as a non-member of the Union, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits” as those countries that are members—that is, the EU27.

Similarly, on road haulage, the same document states that the deal

“should establish open market access for bilateral road freight transport,” but that UK truckers will not secure the same rights to unrestricted operations when, for example, a trucker undertakes multiple trips within a foreign country. On all such matters, there remains an awful lot to work to do. The current timeframe, which envisages negotiations being concluded and the outcome ratified by the end of 2020, is still a big ask. We on this side of the Chamber are concerned that the Conservative Government have still not ruled out a no-deal Brexit, which would not only put co-operation on aviation safety at risk, but be a huge problem for, and pose a huge threat to, our economy.

On a different theme, the ease of air travel means that people can travel across continents and through time zones in hours, when such journeys might have taken days or weeks a few years ago. The coronavirus, for example, has been categorised as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. The death toll in China has increased to 361—higher than during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak—with the total number of cases now above 17,000. Cases have been reported worldwide, including in Canada, the UK, Australia, Germany and Japan. As we know, last weekend 11 UK nationals were flown back from the outbreak’s epicentre in China.

From a world health perspective, air travel means that viruses can be even more easily transmitted worldwide. I hope that the Minister can say a few reassuring words about the actions that the Government are taking, especially during this most recent outbreak, and about the work that is being done with airlines, airport security, world health organisations and, indeed, our own NHS services locally to assure passengers that every step has been taken to make their travel as safe as possible.

The other point I want to make concerns drones. Since the launch of a mandatory national registration scheme in November last year, drone users in the UK must sit an online test and pay a £9 annual fee or face a fine. The Civil Aviation Authority expects 130,000 people to sign up. The scheme was announced following public concern in 2017, when drone usage was all the rage. Such usage included everything from prison drug smuggling to potential collisions with planes.

Analysts from Barclays estimate that the global commercial drone market will grow tenfold from $4 billion in 2018 to $40 billion in four years’ time, so it is vital that this area of UK policy can adapt and change with speed. That is especially relevant given that we are still getting news of reported drone sightings. I think a recent flight was stopped at Gatwick airport last year.

This year, the Department for Transport published its response to the consultation on future drone legislation. The report confirms that the Government intend to legislate to give the police more powers to tackle drone misuse, including the power to issue on-the-spot fines and to better protect airports by extending the area around airport runways in which drones are banned from being flown. The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill was announced in the recent Queen’s Speech, and it is currently progressing through the House of Lords. Again, I ask the Minister to give us some reassurances that the legal framework is future-proofed, and that any wider policies can be kept up to date as the drone market grows in the coming years, as it undoubtedly will.

On some of the specific issues raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, there is no doubt that the recent position of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd has been of real concern. For those who do not live in the highlands and islands, the airport services that it provides are genuine lifelines, allowing people to access health services or see members of their family, and allowing companies to do business.

I agree with the right hon. Member about the sheer professionalism of the CAA, which I am certain would never allow the installation of infrastructure that was not absolutely safe or fit for purpose. I hope that he will work with other highland MPs, such as my hon. Friend Drew Hendry, within whose constituency the airport sits. I am sure that my hon. Friend would be more than willing to share his experiences as a regular user, and as a local MP receiving feedback from his constituents.