|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 967Paragraph 3 goes on to say :
"The call for new powers has tended to obscure the fact that existing ones were poorly used ; there was laxity in approach to security which gives us severe doubts as to whether our recommendations were fully implemented."
That proves the point that I was trying to make at the time. The previous Secretary of State has moved on to other things, so we cannot call him to account now. However, the Select Committee's report is undoubtedly another indictment of the Department of Transport's handling of security.
It is interesting to look at the Select Committee's
recommendations. Recommendation 11 was that all hold luggage on international flights should be screened and that there should be a clear policy on that. The Secretary of State said that he wants to see that and to work towards it. As usual, the Government's response is, "Yes, something more should be done but consultations will take years, things cannot be done immediately and it all depends on whether space is available."
Airport authorities are already advertising space for the sale of goods. Money is available to sell goods to make a profit but not for machinery which only ensures security. That is a good example of the conflict between commercial priorities and the need to provide safety at our airports.
The Department of Transport says that such things take a long time, but does anybody doubt that if safety became a priority it could be achieved quickly ? It cannot be done overnight, but the Government are still using the kind of language that they used to respond to the Select Committee's first report a few years ago. No doubt we will get the same response again and nothing will be achieved.
The American Federal Aviation Administration has always required the examination of hold luggage on American aircraft. It knows the limitations of machinery, but it demands that, if necessary, examinations be carried out in some other way. Britain has had to apply for exemption from the FAA ruling, so American airlines coming into Britain will no longer have to conform with what they believe to be the safest form of luggage examination. That is one heck of a comment on our ability to provide adequate safety checks
It could be argued that the public have a right to know which airlines are inspecting luggage. Why is that not put on the board? Let it be clearly said that all the luggage going in the hold is inspected so that people who think that those airlines will be safer can use them. The public are increasingly demanding such information. As soon as airlines have to start putting such information on the board, they will find all sorts of reasons to inspect all the luggage going into the hold. We know how it goes. But the people who are putting the lid on that are the airport authorities which do not want to spend money on providing extra space over a short period of time. It always comes down to money. Hon. Members constantly have to argue that safety must have a high priority because we know that, when there is a conflict between commerce and safety, often the commercial priorities prevail.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : The hon. Gentleman is expounding utter nonsense when he says that commercialism gets in the way of safety. If he disbelieves me, I advise him to look at what happened to Pan Am's ticket sales in the light of a lapse of security. Commercialism demands the highest safety standards.
Mr. Prescott : People need to know what a company is doing and how. That is the basic point I am trying to make. The hon. Gentleman often appears on television as the Government's apologist when they find themselves in difficulty. He is well known for that. My argument is that airlines should say whether they inspect the luggage in the hold. That basic piece of information should be readily and easily available.
The Select Committee's recommendation 15 was that an aviation security fund should be established, paid for by a levy on passengers. There is a dispute between the Opposition and the Government about whether there should be an overall fund to achieve strong security in all our airports. Again, the Government's response is that that is bureaucratic and complicated. Yet at the same time they say that we should not worry because there will be no problems in funding safety. If that is the case, how will the money be provided? It will be highly expensive. Will it simply be left to the British Airports Authority to look after its own and for Humberside and Leeds to look after their own? If so, an acceptable expenditure at Heathrow will be an extraordinary expenditure elsewhere. That is the reality. I know that cross-subsidisation sticks in the craw of many Conservative Members, whether it be in relation to buses, railways or airports, but it is the best means of providing adequate machinery and the specialists required to maintain high safety levels.
Mr. Barry Field rose --
I wondered about the history of the matter and I checked to see whether the House had ever divided on the matter of the aviation security fund. I was curious to know the reaction of the then Conservative Opposition to those Labour Government proposals. Their Front Bench spokesman, the then hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South--now the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr.
Parkinson)--commented that the financing of security measures "must be put on a more permanent and sensible basis.
It is our considered view that there are even stronger arguments in favour of transferring the cost--some £19 million--from the taxpayers generally to those who benefit from the service provided, namely, those who travel by air there is no such thing as a free lunch . There are many precedents for making the charge on those who use the service."--[ Official Report , 16 January 1978 ; Vol. 942, c. 78-79.]
I fully endorse those observations of the now Secretary of State for Transport. He supported the fund, did not vote against it, and even had a difference of opinion with the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who intervened in his speech. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State once supported the position taken by the Labour party. That may have changed, but what has not changed is the fact that a great deal of money is still needed to fund a high level of security, which must be achieved by cross-subsidisation.
Mr. Barry Field : Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to intervene now?
Column 969What is Labour party policy on the maintenance of frontier and interstate inspections at borders, given that the Government want to maintain them within the EEC in order to prevent terrorism?
Mr. Prescott : We have great sympathy with that objective and believe that there is a special argument for maintaining those inspections, which are required in respect not only of terrorist activities but for the weighing of lorries at ports. The present proposals will mean that the port state issue will be weakened. Fewer inspections will not only increase the risk of terrorism but reduce safety. It will be interesting to see what action the Government take. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address his remarks to the Secretary of State, and I join him in asking the right hon. Gentleman to bear that point in mind.
Recommendations V, VI and VIII of the Select Committee's third report make it clear that the Secretary of State had reached the view that there should not be an independent police authority. That is in line with the Home Office report and the change of mind among chief police officers who said that they were willing to go along with an aviation security inspectorate. The Select Committee commented that if the Government intended to adopt that proposal, the inspectorate should be given the correct status and independence and should not become lost within the Department but be allowed to speak freely in the name of safety. The Select Committee recommended that the head of the inspectorate should be appointed at the level of a chief constable and be given independent access to the Secretary of State for Transport and powers similar to the Health and Safety Executive to report independently.
The Government's response was to deny independent access to the Secretary of State. Instead, the head of the inspectorate will be appointed at grade 6. It is interesting that someone appointed at grade 4--a higher post--is the chief inspector of air accidents, who does have direct access to the Secretary of State because of the special nature of such investigations and the desirability of maintaining his independence. If that chief inspector has any concerns, he can approach the Secretary of State directly. Why should a person in charge of aviation security be so different? Why should the aviation inspector be required to report first to an assistant secretary, who reports the matter to an independent intermediate, who reports to an under-secretary, who reports to the deputy secretary, who finally reports to the permanent
secretary--presumably Sir Humphrey, who might then tell the Secretary of State what is going on?
What if the inspectors, who will serve as a kind of SAS in making assaults on the system to establish whether it is secure, find that it is inadequate? Will they follow the example set by journalists in exposing that inadequacy in the press, which would probably have more effect on the Department, or will they merely produce an internal memo? If they do the latter, that memo will be smothered by the Department, and no one will know what is going on. Yet again, the Department has won.
I understand that the Department made some changes in the aviation security division, which will no longer be directly involved in policy. Nevertheless, it will still be locked into the Department's policy requirements. In that respect, it will find itself in the same situation as the railway inspectorate. Policy requirements relating to
Column 970cutbacks in resources affect safety, but if any complaint concerning safety is made it will be lost within the Department's bureaucracy. That illustrates more than anything the motive behind the Government's action in prosecuting a few journalists who did a good job of exposing certain security inadequacies--or, more to the point, the then Secretary of State's inadequate response to demands for improved safety. All kinds of assurances were given to this House, but they were not honoured, as we know from the journalists' expose .
The Secretary of State remarked that one cannot differentiate between journalists and those who may be attempting to perpetrate a serious offence. The courts take into account serious intent--but leaving that aside, why did the Department ban air-side journalists after the former Secretary of State for Transport was photographed walking down the steps from an aircraft before making his way to the private exit carrying his bag of duty-free goods after returning from Mustique? Why did the Department perform that act of petty vengeance, which did not serve to improve security but was merely indicative of its desire to deflect public attention from its inability to deal properly with security?
Mr. Parkinson : I will put a simple question to the hon. Gentleman, and I would like him to give a straight answer. Does he agree that it is important that when people are questioned and, on the basis of the answers they provide, are issued with passes they should be prosecuted when it transpires that they told lies? Would he be in favour of exempting journalists from prosecution? I think not.
Mr. Prescott : No, I do not think that one should exempt journalists. One cannot draw such a distinction, which illustrates the importance of proper vetting procedures. Nevertheless, the Department took action against journalists who exposed inadequacies that existed despite the many assurances that had been given to the House. Why was action taken against the air-side journalists who only took photographs--who were subject to security vetting and cleared, who do not represent a threat to the nation's security, and who are traceable? That action by the Department was just another example of hiding the loopholes exposed by press attention. All that suggests that the Department is not competent to deal with such matters. The Select Committee concerned itself also with the question of threats and warnings, particularly in relation to the Lockerbie disaster. There has been no investigation into the way in which the Department handled that particular incident. It received a warning about the possible loss of an American aircraft that included the information that it would probably be a Pan Am flight, the route, approximate time, and that a radiocassette bomb was the likely device. The Department circulated that warning on 19 December, which was two days before the disaster. That warning was lost in the Christmas post and most interested parties did not receive it until after the tragedy had occurred. The same Department issued the advice that airlines should watch for a radiocassette bomb, and that any item of which they were unsure should be put in the hold of the aircraft. How can one trust such a Department to be in charge of aviation security?
There is documentary evidence of the way in which the Department dealt with that most serious matter, which is why the relatives of those who died in the Lockerbie
Column 971disaster have demanded an independent inquiry. I believe that the Secretary of State was of a mind to commission one. He has shown in his letter that it is Government policy. I think he argued the case, but the Government do not want an inquiry into Lockerbie. We are told that that is because there is a criminal inquiry under way, but in America a criminal investigation has not stopped them having a presidential inquiry, and they have fined the company involved. When the Secretary of State rushed out all those things just before the anniversary of the Lockerbie tragedy ; when he forgot that there would be a fatal accident inquiry ; when he announced that there would be a fatal accident inquiry, or perhaps I should say that the Crown Office for Scotland made that announcement-- [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is looking shocked, but he talked to the relatives about the inquiry before it was announced, so he must have been a party to the understanding.
Mr. Parkinson : This is a matter entirely for the Lord Advocate, in his capacity as the chief law officer in Scotland. He knew that I was meeting the relatives. I told him. He knew what I was going to say to them. He authorised me to say that he was seriously considering holding a fatal accident inquiry. That decision was entirely independent of me. He announced the inquiry 10 days later and it was his decision as a law officer--and not mine--as part of the Government.
Mr. Prescott : I fully accept what the Secretary of State has said. I did not doubt that it was not his decision. I said that he was aware that that offer was going to be made to the relatives. That is fine, but there is one difficulty. As he told me in his letter, the fatal accident inquiry can look at
"the defects, if any, in any system of working which contributed to the deaths"
or to the accident.
One would assume that the way that the Department of Transport handled the information and the warning is pertinent to the matter, and the Select Committee talked about that. The Committee said that it believed and hoped that the Department had a more sophisticated way of dealing with it. In reality, we do not know, because we do not know what the mistakes were, as that kind of inquiry is prevented. The fatal accident inquiry cannot investigate those pertinent matters. I have evidence from the law officers that makes it clear that the inquiry cannot sit in secret. Therefore, it cannot deal with confidential information, or information on security. Also, it cannot receive evidence outside the United Kingdom, although America and Germany are involved. The evidence also states that :
"In any court proceedings, public interest immunity may be claimed by a Government Minister in respect of production of documents or articles or the giving of any evidence where it is considered by that Minister that it is not in the public interest to make the evidence available."
The Department of Transport could make the case to the inquiry that it would not provide it with the kind of information that would be pertinent to the argument--for example, whether it had the information in time, or whether it passed it on properly. Will the Secretary of State say now that he will co-operate with that inquiry by giving details about every kind of action that took place? Will he give all the information that is available, so that the fatal accident
Column 972inquiry can make some assessment of whether the Department of Transport was competent in its handling of the threatening information that was so correct about the Lockerbie tragedy ? Will the Secretary of State say now whether his Department will give its full co-operation in that inquiry?
Mr. Parkinson : I cannot anticipate what the sheriff principal will want to ask, or whether I will be able to answer it. The fatal accident inquiry is being set up, and we shall have to see how the sheriff principal conducts his inquiry.
Mr. Prescott : I am afraid that is the kind of language that we have learned to live with from the Department of Transport. It will not hold an inquiry into the way that it has handled matters that are pertinent to this issue.
Our case is that, while we welcome the legislation, we have no confidence in the Department of Transport to carry out its responsibilities under it. We shall try to change the Bill in Committee, but we want to make it clear now that safety is our top priority. We mean it. We make recommendations for change, and we pursue them. The Government's stance is just rhetoric, and that has been particularly exposed in this legislation.
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing forward the Bill, as any improvement in security is to be welcomed, particularly when it concerns aviation.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was not on the Select Committee on Transport, so he is not aware of the Contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's predecessor, who was so honest about the Lockerbie incident. He came to the Select Committee and was honest and open with his information, and I have no reason to disbelieve anything that he said. I am certain that he did not hide anything from us. The handling of procedure by the Chairman of the Committee was exceptional, and tribute must be paid to him for the way that we got to grips with the situation.
I should also like to praise the British Airports Authority, although I know that that is unusual for me, and the airlines. They have all made some efforts to improve security at Heathrow, in particular.
The Secretary of State has had power of direction since 1982, and he is now going to extend it. Will he assure the House that he will use those directions to ensure that airline operators will make space available for those airlines which want to do more comprehensive baggage searches? The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East touched on that issue.
We know that there have been instances at Heathrow and elsewhere when the facilities that airlines have requested have not been granted for various reasons. My right hon. Friend should consider that. It is not fair for the operators to say, "I am sorry, we haven't got the space", when, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East pointed out, there is plenty of space available for shopping in the terminals. The BAA is now advertising and saying, "Come and shop in our terminals even if you're not flying out of there". There is enough congestion at Heathrow airport now, without encouraging people to shop there. I
Column 973hope that my right hon. Friend will use his powers, if they are applicable, to ensure that, if an airline wants to do a more intensive baggage search, it will be able to.
My right hon. Friend should also consider the fact that customs and immigration officers are not subject to full security checks at Heathrow. Perhaps they feel that they are too important and that they are above the normal security checks--I do not know. In the past, they have been excluded from the full security checks in directives. I do not believe that a customs or immigration official should be excused security checks for covert operations or for any other activities. Some of them strut around Heathrow as if they own the place, but they are there to serve the travelling public.
Mr. Wilshire rose--
There are still instances at Heathrow when passengers boarding planes come into contact with passengers who have just arrived. That must be a major security risk. Although that probably requires a long-term change in the structure of the terminals, we must not forget the importance of the issue, and the ease with which something could be passed from a passenger getting off a plane to someone boarding one. It is quite frightening.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East also mentioned media passes at Heathrow. To some extent, I must take the blame for the reduction in the number of such passes.
Last summer, I got off an aeroplane just behind a famous film star--Gregory Peck. As he walked out of the door of the aeroplane, he was surrounded by seven or eight cameramen, and about 20 reporters. Later, I made some inquiries but I could not understand why he had to be interviewed airside rather than landside. I asked the BAA how many media passes it had issued. It took half a day to answer, and told me the number was more than 300 and less than 400. Two days later it told me that there were 347.
I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East will agree that there is no justification for the media having 347 airside passes, some of which are never used for long periods, while others are used only to take photographs of travelling passengers. There is no need for the media to go airside, and there is no need for Ministers or Prime Ministers to be interviewed airside when there are widespread opportunities for interviews elsewhere.
The BAA is to be congratulated on drastically reducing the number of passes, and I think that the travelling public will be happy about that.
I share the concern of the hon. Member about the effectiveness of the Department of Transport, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not be too upset about that. We all know of instances of problems there. When officers came before us, and I questioned them about how many inspectors at airports had had experience of working in airports, I was told that one had trained for a time as an air traffic controller. None of the other inspectors had ever worked at an airport before, or been involved with airport security. I hope that there are now more inspectors with detailed knowledge of airports and how they operate.
I think that I was the only member of the Select Committee to stress that, at Heathrow in particular, if there is a security scare a meeting has to be called to decide
Column 974how to handle it. The meeting will be attended by representatives of the BAA, the airline and the police. I still maintain that the police should have overall responsibility for airport security. In 1985 or 1986, the police said that they wanted such responsibility, but when the Association of Chief Constables came before us recently it had changed its tune.
The police should not be allowed to pick and choose their areas of responsibility. One person should clearly be at the top of the chain of command at each airport, responsible for security at that airport. I find it ludicrous that a meeting of three, four, five, six, seven or eight people should have to be called to discuss how to cope with an immediate security problem. The sooner the police start operating at airports again and some of the private security firms cease to do so, the better, and the man at the top should certainly be from the police.
I welcome the Bill. As I have said, we must all welcome any measure that will make the life of the terrorist more difficult and will tighten airport security. Despite the sometimes antagonistic approach of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, I am glad to say that I accept much of what he said, and I share his concern about the effectiveness of the Department in dealing with the problem. 5.31 pm
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : Thank you for allowing me to take part in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am especially interested in the subject, for two reasons--first, because, sadly, one of my constituents died in the Lockerbie crash, and, secondly, because I have received some disquieting correspondence from an airline pilot who, although he operates out of Aberdeen, lives in my constituency.
My constituent who died did not have an opportunity, as did the staff of the American embassy in Moscow, to receive a warning, and had no chance of withdrawing from the flight. He was a very young man, and his widow and 18- month-old son are left grieving. The widow went immediately to Lockerbie to find out whether her husband's body had been traced, but was not treated very sympathetically ; she complains not about the behaviour of the local police, but about that of a number of other agencies. She was sent away, and 12 days passed before she was informed that her husband's body had been found. It turned out later that--according to reliable information--the body had not been mutilated, and that her husband's face was recognisable. His pocket contained an identity card with a photograph and a thumbprint. I inquired into the matter, but have received no explanations that satisfy me or the family of my late constituent.
I shall not pursue the subject of Lockerbie further, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has taken it up a number of times. Let me instead deal with the questions raised by the airline pilot.
First, the pilot complains that several of the security arrangements that have been made so far are purely cosmetic. He says that he and his colleagues understand the need for some cosmetic arrangements : the public must see that the Government are concerned and are doing something. Nevertheless, he complains that security staff are spending most of their energies checking on the wrong people. He points out that Members and staff of the House of Commons who are well known enter the building
Column 975without security checks, but that visitors are all carefully checked : hon. Members are not treated as potential terrorists. The plane that he flies is small, he says ; it carries only 48 bags, only three of which are checked--and they are the three belonging to the crew. He also complains about the pavement searches of the crew's belongings, which are conducted outside the perimeter fence, in full public view. He finds that harassing and offensive.
A letter sent to me by this constituent from the chief pilot, Highlands division, Glasgow airport, demonstrates that those complaints are justified. The letter mentions that work is to be done,
"hopefully this weekend, on the floor of the portacabin. It was the vibration in the floor which was causing every single person to trigger the warning on the security arch."
It goes on to say :
"They are providing screens for the girls to be searched behind and I have also requested that the security ladies are given more training in body searching and make their searches less intimate and brusque."
It seems that crew and staff are not being treated respectfully. I do not think that a pilot should have to write to a Member of Parliament to ask for a curtain to be provided behind which intimate body searches can be conducted, yet that pilot has had to do so. He also complains that it has taken the Department of Transport nine months to answer his letters of complaint.
I think that everyone will agree that perhaps the greatest danger at airports is caused by baggage being left surreptitiously in passenger terminals, or baggage in aircraft freight holds that is not reconciled with passengers who have checked in. It seems to me that the airline staff, particularly check-in staff, are in the best position to spot unusual behaviour on the part of passengers, and to note the time that elapses before bookings, the method of payment--whether the ticket was bought with cash or a credit card, for instance--and people whose nationalities are unusual on a particular airline. All these measures can help to identify a bona fide passenger.
It is plainly important for the expertise of staff to be used and respected, but my informant says that
"the measures that the Secretary of State has introduced" have
that is, airline staff--
"to the extent that they have become very apathetic towards security."
I hope that that is not true, but I feel that the Secretary of State should look into it.
The pilot suggests a number of measures that I think are worth considering. He would, he says,
"like to see a review of the whole issue of Airport Security with proper consultation with all Trade Unions in the industry." I feel that I must give that proposal my wholehearted support, for I believe that full consultation with those at the sharp end of any industry--those who actually work in it--would greatly benefit society in general and that the knowledge, talent and experience of such people should be used and respected.
The pilot would also
"like to see resources directed towards training of airline personnel, and especially check-in staff to identify potential terrorists."
This should be funded by the Government.
Column 976The pilot wants all staff to be issued with valid identity cards ; that has been discussed today. He also raises the question of fraud. On 11 December, an ITN news broadcast revealed that a bag had been left for 25 minutes. The pilot feels that fraud, especially on the part of the press, should be "dealt with severely." I am not wholeheartedly with him on that, however, because I feel that television did a service by demonstrating the dangerous lack of security that still exists--although I feel that frivolous interventions for the sake of publicity or entertainment should certainly be dealt with severely.
The pilot wants
"far greater resources directed towards making sure that, once baggage has been checked in, it is loaded along with its owner". It strikes me as dangerous that someone should be able to check in baggage, show a ticket to ride and perhaps never get on the plane. According to my informant, there are
"new baggage tags which are generated by a baggage tag printer along with a number and its equivalent bar code."
He feels that that may solve the problem. I have not enough technical knowledge to know whether that is true, but I hope that the Secretary of State will look into it.
Finally, he asks for more stringent checks on vehicles entering the restricted area. He also says that he would like security personnel to be gainfully employed in surveillance activities inside the passenger terminal areas of airports. Those are all useful suggestions. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Committee that is to consider the Bill will take them on board.
Mr. Alan Amos (Hexham) : I had been hoping for some time to be called to speak in the debate, especially after flying up to my Hexham constituency to visit the site of a mid-air collison between two RAF jets. The sight of the wreckage and the damage done was horrific. It taught me something that I shall never forget. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for introducing the Bill at this time. The sooner that it is passed, the better.
In the limited time available to me, I shall concentrate on the aviation aspect of the debate. I warmly welcome the Bill and the increased security proposals announced this afternoon by my right hon. Friend. Although the extra security arrangements announced after the Lockerbie disaster answered a number of the security questions that were asked, widespread concern about the lack of screening at airports remains.
The Sunday Times claimed in an article on 9 July 1989, six months after the Lockerbie disaster, that
"packages that have not been searched or screened for explosives are being sent aboard passenger aircraft by commerical courier firms."
The newspaper sent a package, which could easily have contained explosives, from London to New York via Brussels, apparently one of the most secure air routes. The contents were not checked, either by hand or X-ray. When the package arrived in New York it had been neither opened nor screened. Although the airline responsible said afterwards that this type of incident should not happen, the fact is that it did. The worrying question is how many more times it has happened since.
I am aware of only one airline, El Al, that tests the security of its airline anonymously. In its third report on aircraft security, published in July last year, the Select Committee on Transport suggested that the best method