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Policy Hub

22. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What evidence he has collected on the extent to which the launch of policy hub has led to improvements in policy making; and what plans there are to evaluate policy hub. [145858]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The policy hub website was launched in March 2002 to support better policy making and policy evaluation. Since its launch, usage has grown to over 5,000 visits per month. The policy hub continually seeks views from users and key stakeholders. As a result, an improved site will be launched in February 2004.

Mr. Leigh: The Minister will recall that in the Treasury minute response to the Public Accounts Committee report the Cabinet Office promised to monitor Departments' use of the hub. How much have they used it since March 2002, which Departments have not used it and why not, and what is the Cabinet Office doing to monitor uneven take-up?

Mr. Alexander: The strategy unit collects evidence on monthly usage of the policy hub. Usage grew more than 100 per cent. between June and November 2003. Given that the hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the PAC, I will of course be happy to write to him on his specific request in relation to individual Departments. We are at present evaluating the hub on the basis of the number of visits to the website.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): May I be, I hope, disarmingly honest and admit that I am not as au fait with the policy hub, the digital divide and the Better Regulation Task Force as some of my colleagues seem to be? Will the Minister consider ways of bringing some of us up to speed, if possible using broadband, which I have recently installed?

Mr. Alexander: As I say, we are not declaring victory on the digital divide yet. My right hon. Friend made a serious point in saying that one of the challenges is to ensure that some of the more experienced Members of the House also benefit from the opportunities of the digital revolution. That is why we are taking forward our work in a number of online centres across the country. If he faces challenges in using his new broadband service, I encourage him to travel to one of his local online centres, where help and advice will be available.

Business Regulation

23. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What action he is taking to reduce the burden of regulation on business. [145859]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government's updated regulatory reform action plan

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announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his pre-Budget report has over 650 deregulatory measures to benefit business, charities and the public services. Over 240 of those reforms have been delivered by Government Departments since the original version of the action plan was published in 2002.

Bob Spink: Since much of the regulation originates from Europe and this regulation causes massive unemployment, particularly hidden unemployment, is it

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not time we looked again at our various agreements and opt-outs with the European Community and, for example, withdrew from the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy?

Mr. Alexander: The UK has been leading the drive for better regulation in Europe. That is why I recently met the Spanish public administration Minister to press the case for further initiatives. It is fair to say that international observers recognise that Britain has played a leading role on the issue of better regulation, not just in the European Union but around the world.

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Sky Marshals

12.32 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the introduction of sky marshals on flights from the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The United Kingdom aviation security regime is one of the most developed in the world and was further tightened in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the United States. As the House would expect, as part of their overall counter-terrorism strategy, the Government keep aviation security under permanent review and adjust measures to be taken by airlines, as and when necessary.

The measures that are available to us to use take various forms, ranging from different types of screening and searching at airports, through protection of aircraft while on the ground, to measures implemented in-flight, including steps to prevent any takeover of the aircraft cockpit, and, where appropriate, the deployment of covert armed police capability, known as sky marshals, announced by the Government on 19 December 2002.

As the Home Secretary and I announced on 28 December, in response to the present heightened state of alert in the United States, additional security measures on the ground and in the air have been put in place for UK airlines operations in the USA and elsewhere. That is judged a responsible and prudent step at the present time, but the continuing need for those measures will be kept under review. Sky marshals will be deployed where appropriate. It is the Government's policy, for obvious security reasons, not to comment in detail on when and where additional security measures are being deployed.

The House will recognise that there is an increased threat and we have to deal with that in a balanced and proportionate way. Our objective is to ensure that we deploy all the security measures available to us, as and when appropriate, while at the same time enabling people to go about their day-to-day business.

Mrs. May: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. It is indeed an important issue that cannot and should not be taken lightly. Of course, airline passengers want to know when they board a plane that every effort has been made to ensure the safety of that flight. However, over the past 10 days a somewhat confusing picture has emerged of the approach being taken by the Government. We were told in headlines last week that sky marshals would be flying on planes to the USA that day or the next day, and that they had been in training for some months. It then emerged that the Government had not discussed the matter properly with the airlines or the pilots, and that it was not clear under what circumstances sky marshals would be used or whether the pilot would continue to have ultimate responsibility for the flight concerned. In the past few days, the suggestion has emerged that the Government's decision was taken only because of pressure from the United States Government.

We all understand that this issue touches on security matters and the use of intelligence, and that the Secretary of State is limited in some of the remarks that

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he can make to the House. But people who travel on UK airlines, both staff and passengers, deserve to know as much as possible in order to reassure them about the safety of those flights. The confusion that has emerged in the past few days has not helped passengers, and continuing confusion could impact on people's propensity to fly. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain now to the House why talks were not held with pilots and airlines to agree operating procedures before the announcement on the use of sky marshals was made?

Lack of consultation meant that the Secretary of State had to announce on the "Today" programme that pilots would be told about sky marshals on their planes. Will the pilot of any plane continue to have ultimate responsibility for the flight, and will that include refusing to fly if they are not happy with the presence of a sky marshal on the plane? One of the main concerns raised by pilots and by some members of the public has been the use of guns on board planes. What comfort can the Secretary of State give on this matter, and particularly on the type of ammunition to be used?

It is reported today that the Metropolitan police has provided 20 officers for training. How many have completed their training, and how long did it last? What is the limit of sky marshals' actions? If there is a non-terrorist-related incident on a plane, will the sky marshal be expected to get involved, or not? It is also reported today that Toby Harris, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, has raised the question of liability. Can the Secretary of State confirm that no responsibility for liability will fall on the Metropolitan Police Authority, or on any other authority that provides officers as sky marshals? We all want to ensure the safety and security of all those who use planes, both staff and passengers, but it is imperative that the use of sky marshals does not lead to a reduction in security measures on the ground. In a sense, the sky marshal is the last resort—it is better to ensure that a terrorist does not get on the plane in the first place.

Underlying this whole issue over the past few days has been the question of trust in the Government. On the one hand, the Government would have us believe that the use of sky marshals is the result of a well-prepared and thought-through plan, but how can people trust such an assurance when they see the Government failing to consult properly on the proposal and failing to have the answers to a number of real, practical questions? If, on the other hand, the Government have put this proposal in place and have been forced into accepting sky marshals earlier than intended as a result of the actions of the United States Administration, they should be honest with people about that. The travelling public deserve no less.

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