[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Civil Aviation Authority and aviation safety.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means, to whom I am grateful for having been allowed this time, and the industry bodies, air traffic controllers throughout the highlands and islands and others who briefed me ahead of the debate. I place on the record particular appreciation of the Civil Aviation Authority, which took a great deal of time and trouble to talk me through some of the basics. The interest from outside the Chamber is not necessarily reflected in attendance inside it, but we have plenty of time, so I hope we can do the subject justice.
Before coming to the matters that I want to bring to the House’s attention, it is worth putting on the record why to me, an islander representing island communities, aviation safety and the provision of safe, reliable lifeline services are so important. Good transport links, and especially good air transport links, affect just about every aspect of island life in a way that is unimaginable for mainland communities.
For a businessperson in Orkney or Shetland who is required to spend time on the mainland—to see customers or regulators, perhaps—the time away from their business is critical. Those from Shetland will not necessarily want to spend 12 hours on an overnight boat to get home at the end of the day. Opportunities for young people to develop their talents in sport, music or other leisure activities rely on their being able to get that degree of competition that they may not have in their own community, which again requires travel off-island. Good transport links can affect something as simple as attending a family funeral, which can come up at short notice and to which a substantial cost is attached. An employer might give someone a day off to go to a funeral, but not three days. Most importany of all, transport links are critical to the provision of emergency services. For us, the operation of the air ambulance service is every bit as important as the surface ambulance service is to any other community.
I wish to raise two matters, both of which stem from the operation of air services within the highlands and islands, and in my constituency in particular. First is the proposal by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to centralise air traffic control—to remove air traffic controllers from seven of its 11 airports in the highlands and islands and to operate it all from one remote base, which we now know to be in Inverness. That is my most substantial area of concern, but I have further concerns, which are shared by many of my constituents who work as air traffic controllers, about the handling of a whistleblower complaint relating to an incident on 5 April last year involving an air traffic controller employed at Kirkwall Airport.
It might assist the Minister and others if I explain the role and genesis of HIAL. It is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers and operates 11 airports: 10 of them are in the highlands and islands, at Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Wick, Stornoway, Benbecula, Barra, Tiree, Islay, Campbeltown and Inverness, and there is also Dundee Airport, which was acquired more recently. The company was born out of the break-up of the Civil Aviation Authority in the 1980s, which let to the setting up of what then became the British Airports Authority, which owned most airports as a private company. I think it was fairly easily understood that the market would not provide airports within the highlands and islands, so it was necessary to find a mechanism by which that provision could be maintained effectively within the public sector. As a result, HIAL was set up.
HIAL announced a consultation and a feasibility study into the idea of a single centralised point of control in 2018. Parenthetically, the company does not have a great record on consultation. It is not germane to the debate, but it still rankles that HIAL introduced car parking charges at both Kirkwall and Sumburgh airports without any consultation. It said it knew it would get an unfavourable answer but was going to do it anyway. I think we all understand that sentiment, but as a means of engaging with communities such as Orkney and Shetland, it is indicative of a certain attitude, which permeates a lot of the company’s dealings.
HIAL announced in 2018 that it was conducting feasibility studies and consulting on the principle of moving to a single point of control. At that point it was not specified where that would be, although I think we all knew that it would be in Inverness. It was one of the least surprising pieces of news for some time when that was eventually confirmed. Since then, feasibility studies have been carried out, and last month HIAL announced that a system covering seven of its airports from this single, centralised, remote control tower would go live in 2024.
The proposal will affect no fewer than 86 jobs across the highlands and islands. To mainland communities, that may not sound like a tremendous number, but these are well paid, highly skilled professional jobs in some of the country’s most economically fragile communities. For the communities and individuals concerned, the blow will be quite dramatic.
Various justifications have been put up, principal among which is that it is difficult to recruit and retain air traffic control staff. Everyone accepts that there is a nationwide shortage of air traffic control staff, but it has not been particularly acute in the highlands and islands—at least not within most stations concerned. Some areas of the highlands and islands, as a consequence of what was described to me as poor management, have had recruitment and retention difficulties, but I do not think that a company that has problems with poor management should redesign the whole system—at least not until it has tried good management instead. A practice that continues to be beneficial when it is followed is the practice of local recruitment and training staff to work in the highlands and islands. It has proven to be profitable and stable in the past, and there is no reason why it could not continue to be so in future.
The Prospect union surveyed its members and found that 82% would be more likely to leave the company if the changes were implemented. It seems perverse to go ahead with something designed to improve recruitment and retention if the move that is anticipated leads to 82% of staff feeling it more likely that they will want to leave. Let us consider the reasons for that.
The people who are recruited and trained locally in Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and elsewhere in the highlands and islands have their wider family networks in the communities. Many were born and brought up there, or have chosen to move and make their life there. They will no doubt have partners who have careers in the local area. If you take one partner out of a community you do not expect the other partner to commute every week from Shetland to Inverness or wherever, so it is hardly surprising that the figure Prospect found was so high.
Essentially, it appears that HIAL has come to a solution without a problem. It was described to me and my colleague Beatrice Wishart in the Scottish Parliament by a respected industry figure, who said that the whole concept of remote towers is “not yet mature”. On the proposal, two years ago HIAL’s own consultants said that,
“one of the most expensive and certainly the most difficult and risky”
options to pursue was remote towers.
Ahead of today’s debate, I got in touch with the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), who is similarly affected and has similar issues to those that I bring to the House today. He made the very good point that if centralisation can be done, it can be done in the isles; it does not need to be done in Inverness. I think the reason centralisation is not done in the isles, apart from the fact that Highlands and Islands Airports loves to centralise everything in Inverness, is that there is not the communications resilience with the island communities. If they cannot operate the whole system in the islands, they should not seek to operate part of the system in the islands. He also said that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament must not give HIAL a free hand, and I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, however, particularly as far as Scottish Ministers are concerned, that is exactly what is happening.
There is absolutely no indication coming from Transport Ministers or the so-called Islands Minister that they are doing anything to hold the company to account for the execution of its duties, bearing in mind its original purpose as a company was to serve the interests of the highlands and islands. Parenthetically, I would say that is perhaps less than surprising given that not a single member of the board of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is actually resident in one of our island communities. As a result of the lack of direct input from our islands community, the company has allowed itself to become, to use its own words, remote and out of touch with the sentiment in our island communities.
My concerns are shared by parliamentarians throughout the highlands and islands, as well as Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council. It is not a political issue because those councils are all almost exclusively run by independent councillors, who have as their primary concern the quality of services in island communities, and they have all rejected the proposal put forward by HIAL.
The chair of the board and the other non-execs do not seem to be putting a brake on the plan. Right at the start, the chair was brought down here with the managing director to brief Members of Parliament. It seems she has been put up by the company as a cheerleader for the project. That is not my understanding of the role of non-executive directors, so I have some concerns about the way in which HIAL works as a company. It is clear that if there is to be any meaningful and substantial scrutiny of the proposal, which, as I say, is right at the heart of the provision of the most important lifeline services that we have, it will have to come from the regulator. It will not come from the company, the board or Scottish Ministers. It will be the Civil Aviation Authority that ultimately has to sign the proposal off as a safe and viable system.
I have dealt with the Civil Aviation Authority on numerous occasions during my time representing the northern isles in this place, and I have always been impressed by the professionalism and high standards that it maintains. The rigour with which it has approached concerns that I have taken to it in the past and the candour it has displayed in dealing with me has been exemplary as a public body. I say that because I am going to come to a few concerns about how it handled whistleblowing complaints in a minute. However, as far as this project and all the dealings I have had with it during my time in Parliament are concerned, I have no complaint to make.
The particular concerns that I have in relation to HIAL project and which I want the Civil Aviation Authority to submit to the most minute scrutiny are, first of all, the practicalities of how the scheme will work. It will rely on the installation and operation of remote cameras transmitting pictures of the airfield back to the remote tower in Inverness. It will also use the cameras, as I understand it, for weather observation and forecasting. In relation to the operation of Sumburgh in Shetland, a recently retired weather broadcaster described it to my colleague in Shetland, Beatrice Wishart, as “unsafe in marginal conditions”. We work at the margins a lot over the winter months in the highlands and islands.
The siting of the cameras will be crucial. During a visit to the control tower in Kirkwall some time ago, the air traffic controllers pointed out to me that they did not just have sight of the runway and the airfield from the control tower; they had a 360° view. They could see all the fields around, so could be aware of any potential hazards that there might be on the road or in the fields. It is not like the control tower at Heathrow or Gatwick. The airport sits right beside the public road, surrounded on most sides by fields and in small measure by the sea.
The question is whether we will ever have cameras that provide coverage as good as, and consequently as safe as, that provided by the human eyes in air traffic control towers. Air traffic controllers, not just in Kirkwall and Sumburgh but elsewhere across the highlands and islands, tell me that we will not.
There is also a particular concern about how things will work in Shetland, at Sumburgh airport. There are only two airports in the whole of Europe where a public road runs across an airport runway, and it is my good fortune that one of them is in Shetland. Obviously it is critical to have sight of that road. However, if the mast is sited where the road runs across the runway to enable that, there will inevitably be problems with coverage of the southern part of the airport. Doubtless there could be some technical solution to those things. It will come at a cost. I hope that the Civil Aviation Authority will turn its mind to those questions and interrogate those determined to go ahead with the project before it gives it the go-ahead.
On the siting of camera masts, the idea of a remote tower is not novel in the United Kingdom; those of us who fly out of London City airport have air traffic services provided by NATS at Swanwick. The cameras at London City airport are rated for winds up to 35 knots—or a summer breeze, as we might call it in parts of the highlands and islands. I am being flippant, but I assure the House that 35 knots is by no means unusual. In fact, I checked the forecast on the BBC website before I came here today. I am due to fly from Orkney and Shetland on Sunday afternoon, and wind speeds in the region of 40 mph are already being forecast there—and that is still just a yellow warning.
Not that long ago, I was getting on a plane at Sumburgh airport when one of my friends walked out of the runway shelter and was—as an adult woman—very nearly literally blown over. That was on one of the days when we could fly. Those weather conditions, although severe, are no by no means exceptional across the highlands and islands. The expense of producing something that is good to 35 knots at London City will be even greater when trying to produce something resilient in the highlands and islands—because it comes back: what will the consequence be of the idea that an air ambulance plane cannot be got into Sumburgh or Kirkwall because a camera mast has blown over in a gale that is entirely unexceptional in that part of the world and that should be foreseeable when plans are made for the safe provision of aviation services?
The other principal concern that I want the Civil Aviation Authority to explore is the resilience of the digital connection between the airports themselves and the remote tower in Inverness. The House has heard me bore on long enough and often enough about the poor quality of broadband provision in my constituency but, again, the service provided for London City has three levels of resilience to it. They are the one that operates, the one that will operate if the first one goes down, and the third one, which is used to close down in the event of the other two not being available. That is the very obvious standard that we would expect of something as inherently challenging and dangerous as air traffic control. From Sumburgh to Kirkwall there is only one, and if that link goes down we are surely left without any sort of air traffic control. As a consequence, the safety of flights in and out of the islands will be compromised.
I realise that those matters are not within the competence of the Minister answering today, but they are very much within the purview of the Civil Aviation Authority, for which he does have responsibility. I hope that he will impress on the Civil Aviation Authority that he expects the most thorough and rigorous examination of the proposals, when they come. I say “when they come” because I understand from the Civil Aviation Authority briefing that I was given yesterday that the case has not yet been put to it.
We have four years, and we are not yet at the point where there is a formal proposal, and my concerns and those of local air traffic controllers and my constituents have not yet been submitted. That is remarkable in itself. It suggests to me that there is a certain attitude within Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd that the proposal is going to go ahead come hell or high water, and that it has made the decisions now before even getting the proper regulatory approval.
I want to know from the Minister that there will not be any question, at any later stage, that somehow or another there is a commercial imperative: “We have spent all this money, we have installed these cameras, we have done all these things so you’ve got to authorise it or we will have wasted that money”—which incidentally, because it is a Government-owned company, is effectively public money. I want to know that those considerations will not be allowed to be part of the CAA’s examination.
I want to turn briefly to my concerns about an incident that happened at Kirkwall airport on 5 April last year. The essential context and background is that at the time an industrial dispute was going on between members of Prospect who were air traffic controllers working for Highlands and Islands airport and the HIAL company itself. The dispute was fairly rancorous and generated a deal of ill feeling on both sides. The 5 April incident that led to a whistleblower making a report to the Civil Aviation Authority happened when a Saab 2000 operated by Loganair requested start-up at 1943 hours. The airport is due to close at 2000 hours and the rule is that the air traffic controllers have to be there for 15 minutes after the departure, so it was clear to the air traffic controller that they would not be able to meet the requirement; they would be outside their hours. As a consequence, they refused permission for the plane to start.
That is completely in accordance with the regulations under which air traffic controllers work. If they choose to work outside the parameters of the regulations, that is absolutely up to them, but they cannot be compelled to do so, and I suggest that they should not be compelled to do so, whether the reason is industrial action, their concern for aviation safety, tiredness or anything else. Inevitably, there was some pushback from the flight crew and the airport management. The air traffic controllers, however, closed the airport on time at 2000 hours. At that point the Saab 2000 was still on the apron for the night, as far as they were concerned, and they went home.
As the matter was described to me, there was nothing out of the ordinary or exceptional in any way for the operation of air traffic control at Kirkwall airport. The Minister probably has something in his briefing about different systems that may operate at other airports. However, as to the work of air traffic controllers at Kirkwall, as things were described to me, what happened was nothing out of the ordinary as far as they were concerned. It was only when they reported for duty the next morning that they saw the Saab 2000 was no longer on the airport apron and had departed. In fact, what had transpired was that discussions between the airline and off-duty HIAL managers had resulted in the view being taken that they did not need air traffic control for the plane to depart. They made the necessary arrangements to depart the airport without air traffic control.
The point of significance is that the airport fire service had departed at the same time as the air traffic controllers; it was only at the point where it had been decided that the plane should depart that the fire service was called back to work. A message was passed to the air crew saying that they would be able to depart, so they boarded the passengers and the Saab 2000 started its engines and taxied from the apron on to the runway, and it was then lined up for departure. That, it has to be emphasised, was done before the airport fire service had returned, and that is a clear breach of the airport’s licensing conditions.
I have no doubt that these issues have a sliding scale, and this incident may be towards the bottom end of it, but this event is prima facie a breach of the airport’s licensing conditions. Had there been an incident, there was no system or procedure in place to safeguard the 32 passengers and crew of that aircraft, however unlikely such a thing might have been.
Once the fire crew returned, they obviously were made aware. The flight crew realised that by that time it was too dark to depart as, with no air traffic controllers in place, there was no runway lighting. The aircraft therefore taxied back to the apron to shut down, but arrangements were apparently made for a member of the airport fire service to enter the control tower, switch on the runway lights and then return to their fire service duties. It was only when that had been done that the plane was able to depart for Edinburgh at 8.45 pm, some 45 minutes after the air traffic controllers had gone off-duty and left the airport, believing it in fact to have been closed.
As a consequence, there was unsurprisingly a fair amount of local comment and a significant amount of briefing within the local press by Highlands and Islands Airports and Loganair, both on and off the record. A link was fairly clearly drawn between the question of industrial action and the decision to close the airport at the end of the shift. When it then became known that a whistleblower report had been made to the Civil Aviation Authority, that also attracted some press comment.
It was suggested on the record that in fact the air traffic controllers had somehow or other operated outside the agreement on their industrial action. I see no evidence for that, but the difficulty is the whistleblower’s report submitted to the CAA. After some considerable period of time, the CAA concluded its investigation. The issue remains in the public domain in Orkney, but we have no means of finding out the conclusions of that investigation. The investigation is held in that way, and its conclusions are kept confidential. Admittedly that is a result of the CAA operating to international standards, but it only speaks to the airlines, the airport operators and other stakeholders.
It seems to me that the operation of the procedures in this instance is extremely unsatisfactory from the point of view of the whistleblower himself and certainly from that of the air traffic controllers. Their professionalism and conduct have been brought into question in the public domain, and there is now no means of putting the record straight. The most recent public comment put into the local media was, “There is no problem here. There is nothing to see. Just move on.” As I have outlined, however, there is at least one breach of the airport licensing conditions.
I say to the Minister that the relationship between the Civil Aviation Authority and the stakeholders concerned in these whistleblowing cases does not conform to modern rules of transparency and freedom of information. A system that allows somebody to have their professionalism questioned in the way in which that of the air traffic controllers in Orkney has been, and then to have no official explanation as to the outcome of the investigation, is an unsatisfactory one. That could be remedied.
I do not know the outcome of the Civil Aviation Authority investigation, because I am not entitled to know and I would not want to know as a consequence, but Highlands and Islands Airports knows, and I think probably the airline operator Loganair knows, too. If the Civil Aviation Authority cannot put the information into the public domain, it might well suit one of those two bodies—the airline or the airport company—to put the information out there so that, for the purposes of the air traffic controllers in Kirkwall and for the benefit of public confidence in air travel in my constituency, that matter can finally be put to rest.
I realise that no other Back Benchers are present, and I have done my best to occupy the attention of the House this afternoon. It is a rare pleasure, Mr Bone, actually to be able to expound in detail on a matter of supreme importance to communities such as mine. I hope that the words in the Chamber will not only be heard by the Minister today, but by those people outside who are concerned.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (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 the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (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.
Of course, we have done so; we have all been briefed together about this matter. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the concerns that I have expressed today are exactly those held by the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). I do not anticipate much disruption to services in the constituency of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), because there is only one airport in his constituency: the one in Inverness, which will have control. Does the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) agree that, rather than leaving it to the CAA, it would be preferable if there were more rigour from the board of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd and the Scottish Transport Minister?
Absolutely. The right hon. Member makes a strong point. Obviously, he and his constituents are living with the situation daily, and I absolutely respect his point of view, but I think it is about getting round the table and trying to work out feasible and practical solutions to some of the problems that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd faces. I am sure that Scottish National party Members who represent highland and island constituencies would be more than happy to be involved in that. As he says, some of those discussions have already taken place.
I look forward to the Minister’s comments on some of the issues that I have raised. I hope that he can give us some reassurance that the high standards in airport safety that we all expect will be maintained.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on introducing this incredibly important debate. His knowledge on this matter is obviously far better than mine, and no doubt far better than that of any other Member present. I thank him for providing the House with the opportunity to consider this really serious issue. It is clearly incredibly important to the right hon. Gentleman and to his constituents. However, I will not detain the House for very long, not least because, as I have intimated, my knowledge on this issue is not very good.
I start by commending the Civil Aviation Authority on its work. It does a brilliant and incredibly difficult job to ensure people are kept safe and secure. However, from what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I do worry: the CAA has clearly said that it will do a full probe, but I am concerned about the fact that the report is going to be kept private. The very least that ought to happen is that he should be given the opportunity to consider the content of the report. I accept that there is no legal requirement for the CAA to publish that report publicly, but frankly, a member of the Privy Council ought to be given the opportunity to see what is in it. However, I make no criticism of the CAA.
The right hon. Gentleman raises two crucial points, and I think he has the support of the entire House in doing so. I hope that the Minister can provide some assurances and offer him some support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your continued chairmanship, Mr Bone, in which we all rejoice. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), not only on having secured this debate but on the way in which he presented his case. He clearly has very detailed knowledge that far exceeds mine, although I am the Minister. Perhaps we can swap places—who knows?
In recent years, we have had few opportunities to discuss this subject. Every year, the CAA’s reports and annual accounts are laid before the House and are tabled, but that rarely results in a debate. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and I rarely get a chance to talk about these issues, so today is a good chance to do so.
We recognise that the CAA has accrued many duties down the years, including functions relating to aviation security, economic regulation, unmanned aircraft, space and consumer rights. It almost seems like a case of you name it, the CAA does it. However, the core of what it does has to remain aviation safety: the safety of passengers, crew, and the wider general public. That is partly because aviation is such an important part of our national economy, contributing at least £22 billion, along with over 230,000 jobs. For the seventh consecutive year, passenger numbers have increased. Safety is vital to maintaining that thriving aviation sector.
Regional airports such as Kirkwall and Sumburgh and the connections, jobs and investment they provide ensure that we spread those benefits across the country. The right hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about the fundamental role played by air links, both between the islands and the mainland and between the islands themselves—I know that “mainland” means two things on Shetland, not just the mainland as I understand it. I also recognise why aviation safety is especially crucial in that part of the world, given the history of the local area. The right hon. Gentleman will remember the Chinook incident in the mid-1980s.
Back in April 2019, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the then Secretary of State for Transport to draw his attention to the incident at Kirkwall, copying us into a letter he wrote to Richard Moriarty at the CAA. The person making the report claimed that the incident amounted to a passenger flight departing from Kirkwall airport at a time when that airport was closed. The then Secretary of State noted that the incident potentially raised serious safety concerns that were being investigated by the CAA. At that time, the CAA had conducted an initial assessment and provided an assurance that no immediate or urgent safety actions were required. The CAA then intended to conduct an in-depth investigation to ensure that it understood all the facts treating to this report, and that appropriate action could be taken.
As the right hon. Gentleman has set out, the incident involved a Loganair aircraft with 32 passengers on board departing Kirkwall airport in the evening, without air traffic control in attendance and without the aerodrome being declared open through the notice to airmen process. The flight crew of that late-running flight were told that they would not be permitted to take off as the time was too close to the closure time of the airport, and an extension to the opening hours could not be granted by air traffic control due to the industrial dispute that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Management at Loganair called their counterparts at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to see if anything could be done to allow the flight to depart, and were initially informed by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd that this would not be possible.
The Minister says that the flight crew were told that it would not be possible to extend due to the industrial action, but I do not understand that to have been the case. It may or may not have been—I do not know—but my understanding is that this was the end of the day and no link was made.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has more detailed knowledge than I do, but that is the sequence of events I have been informed about. His information may well be more accurate than mine, so I will go back and consider his point carefully.
Once both Loganair and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd had looked into the matter further, they agreed conditions by which the flight could depart under visual flight rules, meaning that there would be no need for an air traffic control service to be deployed. Under that agreement, the flight could depart if the airport fire service was in attendance and if the pilot of the aircraft agreed. The fire services were then recalled to the airport, arriving after the flight had commenced to taxi but before its departure, as the right hon. Gentleman set out. The aircraft departed under visual flight rules and contacted the Scottish area control centre after departure for an air traffic control service. The CAA was alerted immediately by Loganair, and received two separate whistleblower reports in the course of the following week.
The Civil Aviation Authority conducted a review in accordance with its own procedures, interviewing key individuals at both Loganair and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. After concluding its investigation, the Civil Aviation Authority highlighted its findings with the organisations involved during the summer. The CAA has since held several meetings with the airport to discuss progress. The airport has also conducted its own investigation, and as a result commissioned a study into the findings raised by its own report. The right hon. Gentleman might wish to request that report from the airport company.
I understand and sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman’s wish for the CAA’s report into the Kirkwall incident to be placed in the public domain. The sixth principle of the Government’s regulators’ code—I am getting a bit technical here, for which I apologise—states:
“Regulators should ensure that their approach to their regulatory activities is transparent”.
However, transparency in that sense means regulators setting clear standards for the services that they deliver, not necessarily publishing investigations themselves.
One issue that the Civil Aviation Authority needs to consider when deciding whether to publish the report has to do with trust and openness between the regulator and those it regulates. Aviation bodies need to be confident that, in certain cases and for certain investigations, the information they provide will not be made public. That helps the CAA to fulfil its role of regulating the UK aviation industry and ensuring organisations comply with required safety standards. It might be likened to no-fault reporting in the NHS, where people can admit that something has gone wrong and seek to learn some lessons from it without feeling themselves to be placed in personal professional jeopardy. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the air accidents investigation branch routinely publishes reports. A further consideration in this instance is that the relevant information came through two whistleblower disclosures. It is particularly important that staff feel able to make such sensitive disclosures without suffering adverse consequences.
We come to the nub of the matter. I make no complaint about the CAA and the way it has conducted this process, inasmuch as it has done so entirely in accordance with its own rules, and the basis for those rules is sensible and rational. It has conformed to international regulation and good practice. However, what has been done remains unsatisfactory. Information was put into the public domain right at the start, which caused some distress to the air traffic controllers in Kirkwall, and that remains uncorrected. That has two consequences. First, there is lingering concern about safety, the culture within HIAL, and the operation of the relationship between it and the air traffic controllers. Secondly, in the circumstances, there is a public interest point about the likelihood of future whistleblowers coming forward.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I was about to say that I understand the jeopardy that the individual concerned feels placed under. There is an apparent asymmetry of information available in the local community, with, on the one hand, a public discussion about what occurred, and on the other hand, the private information as to what was found and what was done with that information. I am more than happy to make a commitment to talk to the CAA to see what more can be done to assist the individual concerned, and perhaps try to provide some degree of reassurance or to resolve the matter in that way. I hear his point and I hope that we can find a solution.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the wider issue of the remote control towers being centralised in Inverness. I understand his points. When I started out in the House, I was a member of the Transport Committee. My first big victory on that Committee led it to challenge the Government about the withdrawal of the emergency towing vessels in Shetland and the closure of some of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stations. The Transport Committee flew up to Stornoway from Newquay on a regional flight; we were the only people on board. I saw for myself how rapidly conditions change in that part of the world and the significance—the vital importance—of having reliable communications facilities for those remote locations. I understand entirely where he is coming from.
That is a good parallel, because the proposal was for all the coastguard services to be provided from two stations, one in Hampshire and the other in Aberdeen. It is the same point that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) made to me. I asked the coastguard, “Why Aberdeen and Hampshire?” and they said, “Well, that’s one at the top of the country and one at the bottom”—ignoring the fact that Shetland is hundreds of miles further north than Aberdeen. I said, “Why not put the north one in Shetland, which is properly the top of the country?” They said, “Oh no, we couldn’t do that. The connectivity’s not good enough.”
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to go further than my brief.
I recognise the worry that the new system might include a single centre with a consequent single point of failure. I also hear the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about retaining skilled jobs in the peripheral areas and the potential wider impact on the local community and economy. The air traffic management system programme across the highlands seeks to bring together air traffic management for a number of airports in one location, as he set out. Innovative approaches to air traffic control have already been implemented successfully elsewhere, such as in Scandinavia in 2015 and at Cranfield in 2018. London City airport plans to launch its digital remote air traffic control tower later this year, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are precedents for the centralisation of air traffic control. I do not share the universal scepticism about it as a model of provision, and I have not encountered that scepticism when visiting air traffic control towers around the country, many of which are at high altitude, so full 360° visibility of the surrounding area is often not possible due to cloud.
Air traffic control arrangements are a commercial matter for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. I read today the debate that occurred in the Scottish Parliament, which was led by the right hon. Gentleman’s MSP colleagues, Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur. It was a cross-party debate, with concerns raised by Members from all the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament. I noted Michael Matheson’s response too.
I am now aware that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd will undertake an island impact assessment in line with the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. I assure the Chamber that, before any new air traffic management system could take effect, the CAA would need to approve it. In giving its approval, the CAA would be bound by its overarching duty for the maintenance of air safety, so Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd will need to make sure that its proposals satisfy the local conditions. The CAA will not accept the safety case if all that can be said is, “Well, it worked at London City.”
The right hon. Gentleman’s points about the road cutting across the runway are germane to what HIAL has to prove to the CAA. I assure him that it will be treated as a single isolated application, not just one of many, so it will recognise those local conditions definitively. I note his observations about board membership; I am sure that Mr Matheson did as well. I note his comments about why Inverness was selected; I gather that was down to a staff survey. I also believe in the importance of an ongoing conversation with the CAA about many of these issues, not least the resilience of the digital connection, which he referred to.
More widely, I recognise that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is a vital part of the community across the north of Scotland. I have embarked on a review of regional airports and regional connectivity, and I look forward to visiting Scotland. I have not got there yet, but it may well be that Kirkwall and Sumburgh are on my schedule. I did three visits in Northern Ireland on Monday, so I am sure I can fit more in across the Highlands as a whole. I hope that if I am in Shetland or Orkney and the right hon. Gentleman is too, he will join me on my visit and we can see the roads running across the runway for ourselves.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) made a number of interesting additional points that I will try to cover as best I can. It was rather difficult to prepare for the debate, because it was so widely set. I wondered who would attend and what issues they would raise. Many of the hon. Members I predicted would attend are not here and some of the issues that I did not predict have arisen. Such is the joy of having officials to tell me what to say occasionally.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns in the light of our departure from the European Union. Historically, aviation safety across the world has been led by this country and by the CAA. We remain a leading player in the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We have always been a leading player in the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. Our expertise is valued around the world. One of the CAA’s major roles is to provide services across the world to improve aviation safety. I do not think for a moment that that expertise, or the appetite for it, will be diminished. We take that very seriously.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the various freedoms that enable as broad a range of destinations as possible to be served. I am sure he agrees that it is in no one’s interests to diminish that ability. Our objective in any future relationship is to agree as ambitious and comprehensive an air transport agreement as possible with the EU. I am confident that we can do so in the timescales described.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the interesting issue of drones and the extent to which technology is outpacing our ability to legislate. That is often a challenge in government and in Parliament. In many Bill Committees that I have sat on, we have tried to see into the future, but the important thing is to have a flexible approach to legislation, so that as things develop over time, the regulations can also develop. It is as much about the framework that we set up as about prescribing exhaustively every possible combination of circumstances that may or may not occur in future. All too often, our predictions about the future prove entirely wrong. I remember watching “Tomorrow’s World” as a teenager; I thought I would have my own jet pack by now, but I still take the District and Circle lines.
Our concept of the future can be misleading, but we can get the framework right. As the hon. Gentleman correctly points out, the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill is in the House of Lords and will come down here. If he were the SNP Member on that Bill Committee, I would be delighted. He could help with my futurology by making sure that the legislation is fit for purpose.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) for his comments and for allowing me to focus on the concerns of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I thank you, too, Mr Bone.
Normally we have two or three minutes to sum up. I assure the House that I will not take the full 21 minutes available to me.
I thank the Minister for his response. It indicated that he had listened, understood and engaged, and my constituents will be enormously grateful. We will take comfort from what he said and we will continue to pursue this issue, because it is not going away. I note what he said about the determination of the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that this application is treated and examined in the context of its facts and circumstances, and that the approach will not just be taken that it can work because it works at London City. That message will be well received in the highlands and islands.
I note what the Minister said about the circumstances surrounding the investigation into the incident on 5 April 2019. I strongly remain of the view that sunlight is often the best disinfectant. At some point, some of the information will have to find its way into the public domain.
It has been a few years since we had a UK Transport Minister visit Orkney and Shetland. To my knowledge, the last one was Patrick McLoughlin when he was the Secretary of State. That, of course, was in the halcyon days of the coalition Government. The Minister is very welcome to return. I recommend that he comes in the foggy season—the summer, as we call it—rather than the windy season in which we currently find ourselves.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Civil Aviation Authority and aviation safety.