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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 October 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Airport and Aircraft Safety

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]

9.30 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome the opportunity for a topical debate on aviation security; it is an issue that involves many Departments. The 1988 Lockerbie bombing provided the impetus for great changes in security and aviation. Similarly, the attacks of 11 September should make us think again about aviation security. That is not to say that there is a crisis in British airport security; in fact, we probably have the best security in the world, after Tel Aviv. Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports are among the safest in the world, and use measures such as 100 per cent. whole baggage screening.

The reports of the lack of security on the flights involved in the tragedy of 11 September made shocking reading to those in the UK because we are used to taking precautions against terrorism, and have done so for many years. To UK travellers, it seemed that essential security precautions were missing. British aviation is not guilty of basic safety failings, but we should nevertheless re-examine our precautions in the wake of the attacks. It has been said that the events of 11 September have changed the world; the changes must include alterations to our approach to the prevention of terrorism in our skies.

The events of 11 September, and the war against terrorism that has begun since then, must change the way that we think about aviation safety in two ways. First, if the fight against terrorism continues for long, we must take into account the fact that we may need heightened security in the air for some time—possibly forever. How could we maintain that level of security? Secondly, the attack must make us change our tactics with hijackers. In the past, we have co-operated with them, because the motivation for hijacking was different. Many will recall the success of co-operative tactics in the case of the Afghan plane that was hijacked in February 2000 by asylum seekers who had fled the Taliban regime. The 40-minute internal flight from Kabul became a three-day hijack, which was resolved after a two-day stand-off at Stansted airport.

After the events of 11 September, we can no longer assume that co-operation will lead to a peaceful outcome. We must make changes that take new risks into account. We should consider aircraft and airport security. There are many ways to improve aircraft security, some of which have been raised in recent weeks. Some companies are considering installing double cockpit doors to create a cordon sanitaire. They are also considering strengthening existing doors with internal bars.

If we adopt a policy of non-co-operation, we must prevent hijackers from gaining access to pilots, since the policy cannot work otherwise. Similarly, there is little

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point in armoured doors unless we have a non-co-operation policy. A non-co-operation policy, combined with a secure area for pilots, would take power from hijackers and act as a disincentive, but pilots do not like the idea of cutting off the cockpit crew from the rest of the aircraft. If such a long-term or permanent measure were introduced, wide consultation would be needed with pilots and air companies, or the policy might prove to be unworkable.

Many basic issues would have to be addressed, such as calls of nature for pilots and how they would receive their meals. Whether airlines adopt a policy of co-operation or non-co-operation, we need consistency, which is currently lacking. Although some UK airlines have reviewed their procedures and abandoned co-operation, others are still using the co-operation procedures by default. Can the Minister say what efforts the Government are making to standardise those procedures, or is he satisfied to allow each airline to draw up its own procedures? Discrepancies or inconsistencies in the way in which different airlines operate would undoubtedly arise in a hijack as a result of the latter approach.

On 16 September, The Independent on Sunday quoted the Secretary of State as saying that Britain would consider deploying armed guards on aircraft, which would be another way of improving security. Some countries—notably Israel and the United States—are already planning to do that. That idea has some good points, in that if sky marshals were on board, they would be able to intervene in an incident and could act as a deterrent.

It would appear, however, that placing armed sky marshals on board would create as many problems as it would solve, if not more. Conversations with pilots and others in the industry suggest that the idea causes great unease in the UK. They can visualise bullets flying around in a cabin and imagine the risk of the aircraft depressurising. That would incapacitate the sky marshal, who would be there to protect the passengers, and could also incapacitate or kill many others. There is also the risk of hijackers using the on-board gun as their weapon of choice, instead of attempting to get their own weapons on board in the first place.

Figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States show that 52 police officers have been killed with their own weapons over 10 years, which is 9 per cent. of the total number killed. We can only assume that in certain cases the sky marshals would find themselves being relieved of their weapons, which would be used against them or other passengers on board. The idea is still worth considering, however, as, for a number of years, the Israeli airline, El-Al, has used plain-clothed armed guards, who step in when necessary.

Those are two major issues about aircraft security. Another more minor measure that could be effective would be to remove the facility that is available for pre-booking specific seats on planes. Terrorists' ability to spread themselves throughout a plane may have been a crucial factor in the terrorist operations on 11 September. The airlines may need to look again at that facility to see whether they want to give passengers who are in a group the ability to place themselves strategically throughout an airliner, with all the associated risks if they are planning an attack.

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On airport security, it is worth remembering that whatever measures are introduced, the hijackers focus on the weakest link. All measures must be considered and implemented with equal vigour.

The issue of security and vetting of workers has been in the newspapers recently. There has been a history of security lapses. One of the most recent was in January 1999. An undercover reporter secured a pass to work for a cleaning firm at Heathrow despite giving bogus references. In May 1999, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced more stringent requirements for the issue of passport passes and an extension of a programme of tests to look for possible loopholes. In November 2000, another newspaper managed to get a reporter wearing a pilot's uniform into a British Airways aircraft cockpit at Birmingham airport with a genuine airside passport for £10. He even managed to pose for photographs on the steps of an aircraft at Gatwick. In the same month, DETR issued further general directions that had been planned before that incident. On 26 September 2001, a new heightened security directive was issued. On 16 October, The Times reported that staff at the largest aviation security company had worked at Heathrow without compulsory counter-terrorism clearance.

The vetting situation is extremely complex and is a problem that must be addressed. Airports are divided into two parts: groundside is where the public are, and airside is where the aircraft are. BAA and the authorities of most of the larger UK airports are responsible for overall security groundside and airside. Any security staff working airside must be counter-terrorism cleared and are then free to go anywhere airside. The airport authorities do not do security checks on anyone else as that is the responsibility of the airlines. Reliable industry sources have raised concerns about BAA not independently verifying the airlines' clearances. Does the Minister share the industry's concerns?

The airlines do normal security checks on their airside staff, for instance cleaners, refuellers and the security staff who check passengers boarding aircraft. That is a five-year work check, and the airline has one person who is authorised to pass that information on to the airport authority, which can then give workers their passes. Most airside staff working for an airline are contractors and are not employed by the airline directly. It is the job of those airport authority security staff who enact counter-terrorism checks to ensure that the other airside staff remain in the area where they are authorised to work, as they should not be working in any other area. The cleaners on aircraft are split into two categories; some are counter-terrorism checked and it is they who check for bombs or any other material that should not be on the plane. All staff who carry out baggage screening are also counter-terrorism checked. However, The Times article revealed that the counter-terrorism checking of staff employed in a security role or as contractors causes problems. With delays of between four and six weeks in completing checks, some airlines let staff go airside with a temporary pass if accompanied by a full pass holder. Has the Minister considered whether that is a satisfactory arrangement after the

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events of 11 September? Should not all security and contracted staff be counter-terrorism checked before they are able to go airside?

My summary—it was not much of a summary—of the way that the vetting procedures work, and the question of who has responsibility for vetting staff, highlights an area in which some clarification is required. There must be clarification about who is responsible for the supervision of contractors. Perhaps there should be a single body responsible for that, to reduce the likelihood of mistakes. For instance, one of the household names of the UK airline industry has 19 contractors working airside, and I am sure that others have a similar number working for them.

There is also the question of access to aircraft on the ground. The directive on heightened security measures issued on 26 September says that

I take it, therefore, that not all people approaching aircraft are security checked. Clearly, they will have had to go through a security point to have got there in the first place. However, the recent examples of relatively lax security airside suggest the need for not only random checks but checks on every individual approaching an aircraft, as that may be the most vulnerable point of a journey. Would it be feasible to check the passes of everyone approaching an aircraft, or would that be unworkable? If so, what percentage of passes should be checked—10 per cent., 20 per cent. or more? Has that figure changed in the past five weeks?

There is also the question of hand luggage on aircraft. Following the tragic incident, a new list was issued of items, including household cutlery, that were not allowed to be taken on board aircraft. I cannot go into detail because of time considerations, but it is worth noting that passengers returning from Australia to the UK can use metal cutlery until they reach Singapore, where it is confiscated and replaced with plastic cutlery. Clearly, the Government need to work on international consistency.

The next question is whether we should be allowed to take any hand luggage on board. From a business point of view, a ban would have a major impact. Obviously, there could not be a blanket ban on anyone carrying anything, as people need to take on board passports, any necessary medication, wallets and so on, but do passengers really need to take on board the current volume of hand luggage? It concerns me that some airlines introduced quite stringent policies on hand luggage immediately after 11 September but have already relaxed them.

Has the Minister considered the use of transparent bags for hand luggage and to facilitate the checking process? Has he considered requiring people to put most of their hand luggage into the luggage hold so that it can be properly screened? Perhaps we should move to a debate about what people can take on board as opposed to what they cannot.

What about hand luggage screening? The testing of staff is being increased. In other words, there will be random checks, but that can operate effectively only if staff are rotated often. I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on how long staff can concentrate

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effectively when watching things fly past on a screen. Should they work a shift of 30 minutes, an hour or two hours, and should they have 30 minutes or 10 minutes off? The Minister is nodding; he must be getting the gist of what I am saying.

I should have liked to cover many more issues, including the security around baggage holds; however, I know that several hon. Members wish to speak. As the parliamentary sponsor of the air safety group—perhaps I should register an interest—I have been told that, apparently, all the baggage holds for most of the planes can be opened with the same key. Someone working airside can access most of the baggage holds, although some are fairly inaccessible and require steps to access them.

Do we have in all UK airports a system for dealing with clean and dirty passengers? Could not someone coming in from abroad, where the security standards are not as high as those in the UK, mix with clean passengers—those who have been through our security checks—and hand over something that they might have brought into the country with them?

I would have liked to deal with the different security standards that apply at smaller airports, the more sophisticated CCTV monitoring of passengers at airport departure lounges, and the role of passenger profiling. Some companies now use advance information, such as how the payment was made and where the passenger comes from, to do some preliminary checking. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will discuss some of those issues shortly.

I mentioned the need for consistency at an international level. It is all very well having the best possible standards here but, if risks can enter the system from abroad, that remains an issue for us. I understand that the option of using autopilots to land an aircraft in a case of hijacking is not yet an option for technical reasons, but it cannot be many months or years before that would be possible. There is the commercial issue about who will pay the costs associated with security measures, and the issue of general aviation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bath will discuss.

I know that the Government and the industry are not complacent. However, the tragic incident on 11 September means that, even in the UK, we must ratchet up our security even further and ensure consistency of security standards across the country. I hope that the Minister will set out the response of the Government and the industry and provide answers to some or all of my questions.

9.53 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I raised the issue of security clearance of Heathrow staff in January 1999, after learning that a journalist had been recruited to work airside at Heathrow in a secure area, despite having no security clearance. I raised it again in November last year during our debate on air traffic control and expressed concern about rumours that the practice of hiring staff without security clearance was continuing. At that stage, I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister had twice in one year reminded BAA of its responsibilities and had also launched a review of security measures at our airports.

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Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the "exposé" in The Times about the activities of Securicor ADI. I had given him notice that I would raise it during business questions and ask for a response from the Government, because I thought that it was a significant issue for my constituents and the country overall. The response of the Leader of the House was not acceptable to me or to many of my constituents and smacked of complacency. He argued that in the aftermath of 11 September we had a choice: we either recruited more people without security clearance or had no more staff at all. That is unacceptable because people who have not been security cleared should not be able to work in secure areas at Heathrow airport and put my constituents who work there and the general travelling public at risk.

We thought that the issue exposed in The Times had been resolved 18 months ago. The solution to delays on security clearance was seen as speeding up the process rather than allowing non-security-cleared staff airside. Companies allowed such staff airside through exploitation of a loophole in the regulations that permits one security-cleared person to supervise others who are not. Anyone who has visited baggage handling or other secure areas at Heathrow will understand the complexity of the operation and the difficulty of managing staff in any case. Having to manage regular staff is difficult enough, but managing staff who have not been security cleared is virtually impossible.

The GMB union is meeting a group of Members of Parliament today. It has prepared a dossier of instances in which Securicor ADI and other firms flouted the spirit of the Heathrow security regulations, putting the union's members and the travelling public at risk. The union would welcome access to the team at the Department that reviewed security at Heathrow, and seeks a straightforward explanation of last year's incidents. The review team should be able to meet groups of staff informally without prejudice to the staff, to enable the truth to emerge.

Many frightened and worried families living around Heathrow fear that their loved ones who work in secure areas at the airport are at risk because of company exploitation of loopholes in the regulations. We must ensure that the regulations are tightened and that companies that exploit loopholes cannot operate at Heathrow. Their staff should not be allowed to work in secure areas.

If the answer is to review the regulations once more, will the Minister explain the process by which such a review will take place? Will Members of Parliament who have constituents living or working in the Heathrow area be consulted? Will the trade unions be consulted and will staff have an opportunity to meet the review team informally as I suggested? If we want to restore confidence among the travelling public and those who work at Heathrow, we need a more open discussion about security there and about the review process.

I should like to raise a final ironic point about security at Heathrow. At the same time as we are identifying security lapses in respect of staff who have not been security cleared, the Home Office is liaising with BAA about Sikhs who wear the kirpan working airside at

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Heathrow. Following the Sikh religion means following the five Ks, one of which is wearing the kirpan, a small ceremonial dagger.

In the 1980s, an agreement was reached between the Home Office, BAA and the Sikh community that, on condition that the blade be no more than 3 in long and remain a ceremonial object rather than a weapon for use, the kirpan could be worn airside in secure areas by staff who had been security cleared. That has pertained for more than 16 years, yet suddenly there is a threat to withdraw that concession from Sikhs working at Heathrow. That is bizarre because there is a lack of concern about non-security cleared staff working at Heathrow, while a group of security-cleared staff are being penalised for practising their religion, in spite of an agreement that has been honed over the years by the Sikh community, BAA and the Government. The Home Office should liaise with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and BAA to ensure that Sikhs working at Heathrow are not discriminated against as they were before the agreement was reached in the mid-1980s.

For my constituents, security at Heathrow is of prime importance. If it is a matter of speeding up security clearance, resources should be put into resolving that problem. Companies should not be allowed to avoid keeping to the spirit of the detailed and precise regulations on security clearance introduced by the Government to make the travelling public and workers at Heathrow secure. Any company that breaches those regulations must never again be able to employ staff in secure areas at Heathrow.

10.1 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): There is an airport in the heart of my constituency, from which I commute every week. Several passengers have raised with me their concerns, which were mentioned earlier.

In Scotland, an important issue is concern about the delay to the new air traffic control centre, which was recently confirmed by the Government, but which would give Ministers the opportunity to consider improvements to the security at air traffic control centres in the light of the events of 11 September. The prospect of sky marshals or armed guards on aircraft does not fill commuters with confidence, but prior to 11 September, the number one issue was not terrorism but the risk of an accident caused by air traffic control problems. Given the delay in the construction of the Prestwick air traffic control centre, I want to ensure that consideration is given to improving security measures at the centre when it is built.

10.2 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): My constituency, like many others in London, lies under the flight path for arriving and departing aircraft, which has worried residents for some time, as there have been incidents of objects—including, in extreme cases, bodies—falling from aircraft. London has not had anything like the appalling accident that occurred in Amsterdam, but there is apprehension about the high volume of Heathrow traffic that lands and takes off over built-up

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areas; if there were a crash, the consequences would be appalling. Such anxiety was heightened after the Concorde accident close to Charles de Gaulle airport.

Two considerations that arise from the events of 11 September have added to the sense of insecurity: first, the appalling fact that aircraft are being used as weapons, and, secondly, the story, which I suspect may well be true, that the Government have authorised the Royal Air Force to shoot down hijacked aircraft before they reach the most sensitive destinations. If either were to happen over London, the consequences would be enormous.

There is no absolute, foolproof, no-risk solution, short of grounding the entire aircraft fleet, which is not acceptable, as life must go on. However, I want to ask the Minister whether consideration has been given to minimising the risk of such a catastrophe occurring. Risks could be minimised if some flights were re-routed over less populated areas. Re-routing could involve switching between airports or, more likely, between runways. Such flexibility now exists because demand recession in the industry means that some slots are not being utilised. Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a risk, albeit small, and if so, are there mechanisms in air traffic procedures and Civil Aviation Authority rules that could give people on the ground a greater sense of security by the reallocation of flight lines?

My next point concerns the more general issue of the financing and economics of aircraft and airport security. There will be an additional cost and the question is who should pay for it—the airlines, airport authority, passengers or taxpayer? Many hon. Members, as constituency MPs in the London area, hear both sides of the argument. I have many aircraft workers, particularly aircrew, in my constituency. Many are anxious about their jobs and, reasonably from their point of view, believe that the Government should be helping. I tell them that that is not the correct approach and that the robust response given by the Government to the requests for funding from the airline industry is right. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I have written to the Chancellor to that effect.

The broad context is that the airline industry was in substantial financial difficulty anyway, for reasons wholly unconnected with the events of 11 September. A serious slump was on its way because of over-investment and misestimation of demand, and some major flag carriers were already in considerable trouble. Many smaller airlines, particularly the budget airlines, are still competitive and keen to expand into the slots that the bigger airlines cannot fill. It would be unfair to them to bail out any of the big carriers. There is also a broad principle that enhanced security is primarily for the benefit of airlines and their passengers, so it would be appropriate for them to meet the costs.

One small qualification is that we must recognise, even if we are not airport MPs, that there is a crisis in the industry. Although bail-out and state aid are not the right solution, there might be various ways in which the Government, acting in a European framework, can provide some assistance. It would be reasonable to compensate the airlines for compulsory groundings, and the airline industry could be helped with its cash flow by the retiming of tax measures. However, on security, the

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right solution is for the Government to insist that it is a proper charge on airlines' shareholders and passengers, rather than on the taxpayer.

10.8 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): This has been a brief but interesting debate. I want to place on record my thanks to several people working in both airline and airport security, for their briefings. From those briefings, it was clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was right in saying that, perhaps with the exception of Tel Aviv, we have some of the safest airports in the world. I was interested also to learn that much is going on about which it would be inappropriate to comment in public. Providing information about airport security arrangements will merely make it accessible to the very people to whom we want to avoid giving access.

I was heartened to hear what was happening in air security, although, as my hon. Friend also said, our system is only as strong as the weakest link. Although we have some of the best security systems at our airports, that does not mean that all airports around the world are as secure. It is interesting to note that while the Civil Aviation Authority may have the power to stop an aircraft landing at a UK airport because of concern about its airworthiness, it does not have similar powers when there are concerns about security at the airport from which the plane took off. We must consider airport security not just in relation to this country, but at an international and European level to ensure that it is increased worldwide.

I am therefore delighted that the Government have sought to play a key role in the European Civil Aviation Conference. I also welcome the joint ministerial statement made on behalf of US and EU Ministers on 21 September. A number of security improvements to UK airports were announced on 26 September, which brings us nicely back to the issue of our own security. While we should work with others to improve security at other airports, just because we already have a fairly good system does not mean that we should not seek to find ways of improving it still further. I noted with interest that the Home Secretary announced that

I hope that the Minister can give us some idea of the plans that are afoot, although I acknowledge that he will not wish to put on the public record all the measures that may be planned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised many important and interesting issues, ranging from the advantages and disadvantages of locked cockpit doors to the need to reduce the amount and type of hand luggage that is taken on board planes. He mentioned the problems caused by there apparently being a universal baggage lock to most planes from different airlines and spoke of the possible removal of the facility to pre-book seats. He also raised important issues about the security arrangements for airport staff, a point picked up by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who has a long record of following these matters. They both

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referred to issues that had been raised previously and to the particular concerns raised most recently in The Times about the issuing and use of passes for people working airside.

I hope that the Minister can give us some indication of plans to change the regulations and the checking systems. I hope that he will also pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about meeting representatives from the unions to look at their list of examples of breaches that have taken place. I have one specific question for the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made clear, the system is already complicated. The airlines are, in effect, responsible for the issuing of passes. The airline decides which person shall be given a pass and then on the basis of an authorised signature, BAA issues the pass. BAA is then responsible for carrying out random checks on whether the passes have been issued appropriately. It would not be sensible to put on the record the percentage of passes that are randomly checked in that way.

As my hon. Friend said, some people are urging the need to increase the percentage of passes checked by BAA. Has the Minister's attention been drawn to any difficulties that BAA might experience in carrying out further checks, as a result of the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998? In checking a pass, it is important to check the references used to issue it. It has been suggested to me that the Data Protection Act makes it impossible for BAA always to check such references. There could be a situation in which many pass applicants use the same person as a reference; that might be one way of uncovering problems. BAA provides the security passes for staff who have access to all parts of the airport to check on what is happening, and those people are, quite properly, required to undergo counter-terrorism checks. Inspectors from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have responsibility for checking whether that system, and all other aspects of airport safety, work properly.

It has been put to me—I have no way of checking whether it is accurate—that there are concerns about whether those inspectors are well enough trained, not only to check whether the regulations are complied with, which is relatively easy, but in looking wider afield to problems outwith existing regulations, which might draw attention to the need for regulations to be made. It has been suggested that they are good at counting whether the right number of paper clips are in the right place but not so good at looking at issues that fall outside the regulations.

My hon. Friend also made passing reference to the development of systems to help identify potential criminal elements who seek to board planes. Several such systems have been developed following the legislation on football hooligans, for example, such as the matchmaker borderguard system, which has been well developed and which is being considered in respect of passengers seeking to board aircraft. The Government intend to carry out trials of the system in the near future. I understand that Go is to be one of the trial airlines but decisions have not been made on which long-haul airline is to be used. I note with interest that the system was developed in conjunction with Virgin Atlantic. I know that that company is very keen, having already been involved in the scheme, to be the selected

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airline. The Minister must obviously look at all the offers, but it would be helpful if he could give us an idea of what progress has been made on the issue. Another question on the development of that system relates to the Data Protection Act 1998. Will the Minister look at whether that Act might present any difficulties in the use of the matchmaker borderguard system on airlines with international passengers?

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) raised understandable concerns about whether the second air traffic centre at Prestwick is to go ahead. He, and I suspect all hon. Members, would be interested to hear from the Minister what the current plans are. The dual centre system was intended not merely for ensuring that sufficient facilities are available, but as a security measure in the event that one or other of the two systems went down. My hon. Friend's concern about the future of Prestwick will have been heightened by the revelation in the past 24 hours of a possible financial crisis in the National Air Traffic Services. Will the Minister comment briefly on whether those reports are true and on whether NATS has been or might be planning to discuss the issue with him?

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) rightly raised the concerns of his constituents and of others who live on the flight paths, and I am sure that he will be interested in the Minister's response. He also rightly raised concerns about who will pay for increased air security. We could ask several questions about that, but will the Minister tell us what action the Government are taking, as distinct from the EU, to investigate concerns about whether the immediate and significant increase in premiums by insurance companies was permissible under UK legislation?

My hon. Friend rightly said that it is important that the Government work within existing EU arrangements as regards any help that the airlines might be given to increase air security. He also referred to support with cash flows, and I entirely support his remarks on that.

Finally, I want to raise a concern that has not been touched on. Much of the debate has been about security on aircraft and at airports, but no mention has been made of the difficult issue of aerodromes and general aviation. I am talking not about aircraft on regular flights, but about aircraft that members of the public can hire and fly from aerodromes. The Department's document "The Future of Aviation" of December last year described general aviation as comprising

When I looked into the issue, I was given a helpful brief by the Library. It stated:

and, in this case, aerodromes used for general aviation—

Those bodies

The issue is therefore what checks are made on passengers of aircraft that land at aerodromes? If the Minister has better information than me, I would be

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grateful to hear it, but it appears that all that is necessary in the majority of cases is for the passengers to provide the operator with copies—often faxed copies—of their passport details. It is the pilot's responsibility to check whether those are accurate and to forward them to customs. In the light of that information, customs will decide whether even to go to the aerodrome to check the passengers who get off the aircraft. I have details of several companies that operate under such arrangements and which give people the opportunity to board flights to the United Kingdom from as far away as Serbia.

There could be 13 passengers and two crew members on board a plane. In the past, it was thought that members of a group that hired an aeroplane would be unlikely to shoot or harm each other. However, after the appalling incidents of 11 September, we know that some people are prepared to do almost anything with an aircraft itself, so a loophole related to general aviation may need to be filled rapidly.

I have raised several issues and look forward to the Minister's response. I end by repeating what I said when I started: notwithstanding the concerns raised, I genuinely believe that the United Kingdom's airport system is probably one of the most secure in the world.

10.25 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am delighted to participate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on having secured a debate on such a timely matter.

I start where the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) finished: I believe that we have one of the most secure safety records in the world. It has perhaps not been said so far, but it must be said loud and clear, that the terrorists will have won if we allow the threat of terrorism to deter people from going about their normal lives, including travelling on aircraft. People should feel safe and it is the duty of us all, especially the Government, to ensure that there is that feeling of safety among the travelling public. The debate will play a part in that.

Perhaps we should put the matter in context and consider the scale of aircraft travel. Air traffic has increased rapidly. In 1988, 93.2 million passengers passed through British airports, of whom 21.7 million had travelled on domestic flights. Ten years later in 1998, the figures had risen to 159 million and 33.6 million respectively. That was a 55.3 per cent. increase, and air traffic is forecast to increase by 50 per cent. during the next 15 years. A huge number of people travel by air, so aircraft and passenger safety must be paramount.

The report of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in 1999, long before the incident on 11 September, made several important recommendations. Before I go into the post-11 September scenario, it is worth looking back at the report to see what it highlighted. Richard Profit, the group director of the Safety Regulation Group, told the Committee that the recent emergence of low-cost carriers was

He recommended that if the Safety Regulation Group continued to experience staff shortages, which could not be in anyone's interests, the Government should relax

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the pay restrictions that they impose on the Civil Aviation Authority. I know that that is controversial, especially in view of 11 September, but we cannot tolerate the safety group experiencing staff shortages.

The Committee also considered aircraft inspections, with special regard to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 747 that landed at Heathrow with only 3.4 tonnes of fuel in its tanks. That was not enough to divert to another airport or to hold its position for any length of time if its approach to the airport had been delayed. The incident is important in terms of aircraft safety. Responsibility for inspecting foreign-registered aircraft that land in the United Kingdom—so-called ramp checks—rested with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Committee stated:

in the UK

Again, that problem needs to be tackled.

The Committee identified two other issues. The Royal Aeronautical Society told the Committee that

Clearly, we need to deal with that. Continuing about the lack of engineers, the society said that there was

If we are compromising on the number of engineers, aircraft safety is being compromised.

We know that BAA spends £100 million a year on security, and that is to be greatly welcomed. We also know that since 11 September it has considered a number of security measures. For example, cockpit doors are now being locked and armour-plated doors with reinforced locking mechanisms are being installed to all aircraft types at a cost of more than £1 million. Secondary searches have been introduced for a proportion of passengers. Flight deck visits for commercial passengers have been stopped. Flights were immediately re-routed to avoid Afghan airspace. Obviously, services to Islamabad have been suspended and plastic cutlery has been introduced on all flights out of the United Kingdom. I also travelled on China Airlines recently, and all the cutlery on that flight was plastic.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly focused on the issue of staff at Heathrow. It is an important part of the consultation process that the GMB should be involved in all groups that are discussing aircraft and airport safety. I hope that the Minister will be able to take that on board.

Much has been said about the staff who check both passenger luggage and airport hold luggage. That is an important subject, which was raised, I think, by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. How well trained are the staff who check the luggage using X-ray machines? I have heard of students with only minimal training being employed by airlines. That is a major lacuna in safety inspection systems at airports. We should expect all staff who are employed by airports and

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airlines to check baggage—whether it be hold baggage or hand luggage—to have a minimum level of training. That is the first and paramount step that we could take.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the issue of the length of baggage-checkers' shifts and how much rest they should have between those shifts. Anybody who has worked on a production line will know that the required level of concentration can be maintained for only so long. We need to consider that carefully.

We know that the Government are raising £1 billion a year in airport tax and we know that the American Government have given specific help to their airlines, which are in trouble because of the huge increase in security costs that they have had to meet since 11 September. The Government need to examine carefully—within a European regime, because that affects what we can do with state aid—whether some of the airport tax revenue might be recycled and used to improve long-term safety at our airports and on our aircraft. I would like the Minister to comment on that. I recognise that it is outside his brief to an extent, but the issue of finance for security is within his brief and he might be able to say something about it.

We need to consider how we screen luggage. During a trip to Australia last year with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we were met at the airport by Australian customs and asked if we had any food in our luggage. We all said no. Dogs were sent round the luggage and a New Zealand apple was found in the luggage of one of our Labour colleagues, who shall remain nameless. That shows how careful the Australian authorities are. They screen every piece of luggage using dogs.

It may not be possible or practical to do that here, but what I have described suggests how we need to tighten our random testing of hand luggage and hold luggage. I know that that would cause increased delays, but if it becomes clear that we are taking a stringent and firm stance on airport safety with respect to luggage, and if it is widely known that detailed random checks will be made, there could be a deterrent effect.

We also need to be more stringent in the questions that we ask passengers. The other day I went on a domestic flight to Edinburgh. Somebody had checked in for me and the luggage awaited my arrival at the desk. The desk officer fired three quick questions at me, asking, "You haven't done any of those things, have you?" I said, "Of course not," and that was it. Somewhat more stringent questioning seems to be needed. Those are elementary and simple methods of improving aircraft safety.

I understand that there are problems with various aspects of airspace control. One of those is military aircraft. A Tornado collided with a Cessna over a midlands airfield two years ago. Clearly, no compromise should be made with regard to safety, where fast military jets are concerned. That is an elementary matter, which needs to be sorted out.

The Europeans are taking more and more control of our airspace, and that needs to be considered carefully. An issue that needs to be dealt with is aircraft control above 35,000 ft, which the Europeans regulate. We need to ensure that the European standards in all countries are as good as ours in this context.

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We need to study carefully our arrangements with other countries on airspace control. For example, following the incident on 11 September the United States has tightened its safety regime considerably. That process has included the screening of passengers, hold luggage and cargo, as well as aircraft searching and guarding. No consultation took place, but the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions worked closely with the United States authorities and it was commendable that air traffic between the UK and the US could resume so quickly.

However, that happened on a purely bilateral basis, without the involvement of any particular regulatory bodies. In future it would be sensible if well established mechanisms of communication with countries around the world were available, so that when a rapid change in safety standards becomes necessary following an incident, systems are in place. That applies also to our European colleagues. Through the Joint Aviation Authorities and the European Civil Aviation Conference, the sort of bodies to which I am referring are beginning to emerge. However, they are not quick enough on their feet yet to be able to deal with incidents such as that of 11 September.

We have covered a lot of ground this morning, and I do not intend to repeat it. Many safety arrangements obviously cannot, and should not be, put into the public domain. The British have a record of safety measures among the most stringent in the world, along with the Israelis. An incident that occurred when I travelled to Israel exemplifies everything that I have said this morning. When I left Israel, not only was my case completely taken apart—every single thing in it was inspected—but I was subjected to a rigorous verbal examination. I had to produce travel documents to show where I had been in Israel, I was asked why I had been there, why I was leaving for the UK at that particular time and why I had visited Saudi Arabia the year before. If the Israelis can run that sort of security operation, the United Kingdom should be able to make more random checks of luggage and passengers.

We need to use modern IT equipment to check passengers more rapidly. The hon. Member for Bath referred to the problems of the Data Protection Act 1998 and to the other international security mechanisms that protect individuals. We must find a way around those problems. Every aircraft should have an IT system, so that passengers can be rapidly checked against an international blacklist should an incident occur. Again, such systems need to be developed.

We need to consider whether sky marshals should be on aircraft. I do not advocate that they should be on every aircraft, but they might be used on a random basis. They should not be armed, because that would merely give terrorists another way of obtaining arms. However, the police are testing new developments, such as stun apparatus, that could rapidly disable terrorists. We need to consider all those methods and to come up with a global system to protect air passengers.

I end where I started: let us not allow the terrorists to win this war. Let us ensure that the worldwide public have full confidence in aircraft travel, so that they can

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travel in safety and with enjoyment. That is the purpose of our debate and of the Government's action. We look forward to the Minister's reply.

10.41 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) not only on securing this debate and choosing this subject but on the measured way in which he conducted the debate. Indeed, that point applies to all hon. Members who spoke this morning.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this is a most important matter. In the end, the debate was more about security than safety, but the safety of passengers and others is at the forefront of our minds. He started by saying that there is no crisis in the United Kingdom security system, and I agree. He went on to speak about the high levels of security that obtain in our airports, as did the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). They are absolutely correct. However, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was right to say that there is no reason for complacency. I assure him that the Government are considering all systems to ensure that they meet the standards of which he spoke.

I shall try to answer as fully and frankly as possible all the points raised today. However, as several hon. Members said, some matters are more difficult to talk about in detail because of the nature of the problem and because the answers are best not put into the public domain. If I do not cover some of the issues in the detail that hon. Members would like, I undertake, as always, to write to them about the points that they would like me to answer.

It may help if I put the debate in its context. There is no question but that the security and safety of our airlines and airports has been uppermost in everyone's minds since the appalling events in the United States of America on 11 September. I am sure that the awful images of that day will live for ever in the minds of those who witnessed them on television and especially in the minds of those who witnessed them first hand. We are determined to do everything humanly possible to ensure that nothing remotely similar happens again. I am sure that those feelings are shared by everyone in the Chamber, as has been evident from the quality and commitment shown in the speeches made today.

I assure hon. Members that the staff in my Department who have responsibility for transport security and safety have worked tirelessly since 11 September to review and improve levels of security, along with colleagues from other Departments, the Civil Aviation Authority, representatives of the transport industry and colleagues in overseas Governments and organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation. I thank and congratulate the staff of all those organisations, who have worked extremely hard on this important issue.

New measures have been identified and are being implemented in response to the attacks on the United States. Hon. Members will understand that it would be inappropriate to discuss all those measures in detail but, before I address the specific points raised in the debates,

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I can reassure everyone that all that can be done is being done to provide the proper protection of all those working in the aviation industry, those who travel and others who might be affected by the workings of the industry.

It is impossible to discuss aviation security without recalling the terrible tragedy that struck Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1988. That disaster marked a tangible turning point for aviation in the country—indeed, in the world. That is not to say that before 1988, aviation security was not taken seriously in the United Kingdom, but Lockerbie was a watershed that changed the world's perception of how terrorists might attack aviation. We went from a world in which the terrorist threat was concentrated on hijack to one in which it concentrated on sabotage. The events of 11 September have moved us on yet again, to a world in which the previously unthinkable threat of a suicide attack, with an aircraft being used as a weapon, has become a reality.

As a result of that attack, much work has been done and much remains to be done, in both domestic and international arenas. The progress that we have made in aviation security since 1988 has been remarkable, although I do not want to sound complacent. The Government are not complacent, but we have great confidence in the state of aviation security in this country. Because our security has moved on so far in the past 12 years, we face a far shorter journey than some other countries in dealing with the new threat.

I will address some of the issues that were raised in debate. First, questions were asked about how we could make aircraft more secure and about the screening of passengers. As with any aspect of security, there are several threads to the issue. An aircraft needs to be kept secure from interference on the ground, from any threat from the bags and cargo that go into the hold, and from threats posed by passengers during the flight. That is why all passenger flights from the United Kingdom operate from restricted zones designated under the Aviation Security Act 1982. Everyone and everything that enters a restricted zone is subject to security control.

Some hon. Members asked what that control amounts to. Every aircraft is subject to a security check when all incoming passengers have left, to ensure that nothing suspicious has been left behind. After that check, access to the aircraft is carefully controlled to ensure that no unauthorised person gets on board. Every passenger who leaves the United Kingdom passes through a security checkpoint where they are screened by metal detection equipment and where many are subject to a hands-on search. They are liable to be searched again at the departure gate. Every other person, from the pilots to the cleaner, passes through a staff checkpoint where they are screened by metal detection equipment, supplemented in many cases by a hands-on search. The United Kingdom is the only country in the world where that is done.

Mr. Don Foster : Will the Minister acknowledge, however, that that system is not in place for general aviation, and that those checks are not necessarily carried out on people flying into this country from abroad?

Mr. Jamieson : I accept that there is more to do in the case of flights that come into this country. That has been

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the subject of many of our international discussions. I was referring to the comments made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington about the situation in airports in this country. Every bag entering the restricted zone, whether it is hand baggage accompanied by the passenger, a suitcase bound for the hold of the aircraft or a bag belonging to a staff member, is screened by a trained X-ray operator.

John McDonnell : Can my hon. Friend assure me that Customs and Excise staff are also screened as they go through?

Mr. Jamieson : I do not believe that they are.

Every piece of cargo going into an aircraft hold has been subjected to security controls and every aircraft meal is supplied by a caterer whose security processes have been inspected or approved. Those measures are carried out only in the United Kingdom.

If hon. Members will bear with me—my comments might seem a little disjointed—I should like to address the considerable number of questions and points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked about standardising procedures in the event of a hijack. The Civil Aviation Authority is reviewing those procedures with UK airlines, and is trying to establish some appropriate standards. The issue of pre-booking seats will be carefully examined as part of the wide-ranging review of security measures that is under way.

The people who operate the screening machines were also mentioned. The screeners operate for only 20 minutes at a time, with at least a 40-minute break between such periods. It is a difficult and exacting job, requiring a high degree of concentration, which is why those measures are in place. Staff employed as X-ray operators, who are operators of other screen technology, are trained to a very high standard by the DTLR training providers. That training is supplemented by regular refresher training. We are introducing a new screening methodology, which incorporates threat image protection. That not only improves screening but amounts to continuous on-the-job training.

Since January 2001 it has been a legal requirement for security-screened passengers to be separated from arriving passengers. However, while UK airports have agreed time scales to achieve that, it is not done at all airports. In the meantime, compensatory measures, such as extra gate searching, are in place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has a very long record of concern over airport safety, spoke robustly. He mentioned the article in The Times, the thrust of which was that people were coming into the airport without having had their passes cleared. I believe that the newspaper has subsequently published a correction to the effect that the company was working to DTLR guidelines. That meant that people working with the security company could not work airside if they were unaccompanied. If trade unions and others wish to meet

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officials to develop aviation security policy, we will of course be pleased to receive views on that matter, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Don Foster : I was not aware that The Times had published an apology. Is the Minister totally satisfied that existing arrangements for supervising those without full security passes are 100 per cent. adequate?

Mr. Jamieson : As the hon. Gentleman will know, I could never give such an undertaking. However, my Department has done everything humanly possible in that regard, and I can assure him that if any breaches are drawn to our attention they will be investigated thoroughly.

John McDonnell : I, too, have seen no retraction in The Times. The issue is supervision. The onus placed on security-cleared staff to supervise those who are not so cleared is almost impossible to fulfil, given working practices in parts of Heathrow airside. That is why I welcome the opportunity provided by the Minister to meet Heathrow staff and the review team.

Mr. Jamieson : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. They underline why it would be good for unions and staff to meet officials to discuss these issues.

Tom Brake rose—

Mr. Jamieson : I will give way, but I am mindful of the time and I want to get through some of the other points that were raised.

Tom Brake : I invited the Minister to say whether, given these incidents, it would be appropriate for all staff to be counter-terrorism checked before going airside, rather than having to rely on supervision that might be of variable quality.

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington have raised important issues, and we have undertaken to look at them.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) mentioned a number of matters, including NATS' request for a delay to the Scottish centre. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that safety remains—and

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will remain—absolutely paramount, and will in no way be compromised by such a delay. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for raising that point.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) mentioned aircraft overflying London. He will know that certain restrictions were imposed immediately after 11 September. In view of the level of traffic, the location of London airports and the prevailing wind directions, it is not possible to avoid overflying London without compromising air safety and seriously impeding air travel to London. However, the points that he raised on his constituents' behalf will certainly be noted.

The hon. Member for Bath asked whether DTLR inspectors are sufficiently well trained to check compliance airside and in airports. I believe that he said that inspectors are capable only of counting paperclips, but I can assure him that they are extremely capable people—

Mr. Foster rose—

Mr. Jamieson : I will not give way, as I want to have time to answer the points that have been raised.

On data protection, an interdepartmental group is examining the feasibility of checking staff and passenger details against information that could be stored on a master database, so that potential undesirables might be identified. The group will examine any legal implications arising from, for example, data protection legislation. I hope that that is of some comfort.

On aerodromes, under recommendations issued by the European civil aviation conference, the receiving airport should be notified of any aircraft, including general aviation, to which security controls were not applied at the airport of departure. On landing, such aircraft would be made secure. We shall further investigate how that recommendation is being implemented.

The hon. Member for Cotswold raised the issues of finance for security and the general competitiveness of airlines. We are mindful of the funding that has been available in the United States. He will appreciate that those are not issues on which we can make definitive decisions at any particular moment, but he can be assured that they are being kept under review.

The debate has been useful and helpful. I am sorry that there has not been time to respond to all points, but if individual Members want to indicate matters to which I have not responded, I should be happy to reply in writing.

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