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Mr. Darling: It would be much more preferable if we could deal with this matter on a bipartisan basis because, as the hon. Lady rightly recognises, a great deal rides on it. I should make it clear that the first line of defence is to ensure that the security at airports and surrounding aircraft is as tight as it possibly can be. In the past few days, I have made the point time and again that we have tightened security at all UK airports; indeed, many passengers checking in will have noticed that there have been delays from time to time. Unfortunately, that is a result of increased security—screening individual passengers and baggage, and other measures. The

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deployment of sky marshals can be only one part of a raft of measures that we have put in place to try to prevent the possibility of somebody getting on an aeroplane and then being in a position to try to take it over.

We announced our intention to train and, if necessary, deploy sky marshals in December 2002. That has therefore been the Government's policy for more than a year before the announcement that the Home Secretary and I made on 28 December, so the idea that the policy was developed at short notice is simply not true.

The hon. Lady asked about consultation. Over the past year we have had many discussions with the aviation industry, including the airline pilots union. It has always been made clear that, for perfectly obvious reasons, the pilot would remain in charge of the aircraft.

As to the information made available, the Government will continue to keep people informed as much as they possibly can. However, the hon. Lady recognises that inevitably it is neither possible nor right for the Government to provide a running commentary on everything that is happening at a particular time. Neither can the Government allow themselves to provide information that might disclose to the very people about whom we are concerned not only what we do know, but what we possibly do not yet know. I therefore hope that she will understand that the Government will not be able to answer some of the questions that she asks now or in the future.

The hon. Lady is right that the Government intend to keep people informed. That is why the Home Secretary and I made our announcement at the end of December—because of the heightened security in the United States and, indeed, other parts of the world. We shall put in place every measure we can to ensure that the safety of aircraft in this country is as high as it possibly can be. We will continue to do that. Unfortunately, as I have said before, it is likely that this state of alert is likely to last for some considerable time. I am afraid that it is a fact of life and a consequence of the age in which we live. We will continue to be vigilant and to do whatever is necessary. We will also, of course, continue to keep the House informed.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Does the Secretary of State accept—I am sure that he will—that concern for the safety of air passengers is shared on both sides of the House and that any measure to counter terrorism should be given serious consideration? Does he also accept that the effort to prevent terrorist acts on aeroplanes should—and, indeed, must—remain primarily focused on ground security? I would be grateful if he would reiterate that commitment.

Does the Secretary of State accept that BALPA is quite right to be extremely concerned about the potential risk of introducing weapons on to planes? If the Government—or the United States—insist that sky marshals should be deployed, will he ensure that protocols are agreed between airlines and pilots to make it clear that the captain remains in control and in command at all times, as well as being fully apprised at all times about what is happening on his aircraft? Protocols should also ensure that only fully trained

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police officers would be used in the role, which should help to reassure passengers that the matter is being dealt with in a professional manner.

Mr. Darling: First, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that ground security is paramount both here and in other parts of the world. Furthermore, sky marshals will be deployed only when we believe, on the basis of available evidence, that it is justified. It represents only one part of a wide range of measures that are available to us.

Of course the sky marshals will be highly trained. They are already highly trained and will be trained further for specific operations on aircraft. I fully understand the reluctance of pilots and the concern of others about the deployment of such people on aircraft. However, one thing infinitely worse than having a sky marshal on a plane is having a terrorist on the plane who is about to enter the cockpit. Many people recognise that in certain circumstances, based on available intelligence, it may be necessary to deploy sky marshals.

I note that the general secretary of the airline pilots union said on television this morning that it no longer objected to the deployment of sky marshals, but remains concerned about protocols to ensure that the captain will remain fully in charge. I have made it absolutely clear on several occasions that that is the case. The House may be interested to know—there has been discussion in the newspapers—that British Airways has written to me to confirm that it does not object to the deployment of sky marshals where appropriate. Its concern is exactly the same as that of the rest of us—to ensure that we have an appropriate level of security on aircraft. That is what we shall do.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The intensive effort made by the Government over the past few years in respect of perimeter security at airports, especially at Heathrow, has been widely acknowledged. The Government should be congratulated on that, but it is regrettable that we are not tackling the issue on a cross-party basis. There is a divergence of views about the role of air marshals, but it is accepted that they can play a role as part of an integrated system. Will my right hon. Friend meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament with aviation interests to explain the role of air marshals in that integrated system? Such a meeting would allow us to discuss in more detail some other issues in connection with perimeter security, especially at airports in the developing world. What steps are the Government taking to give countries in the developing world further support and assistance in this matter?

Mr. Darling: Of course I am happy to meet colleagues, to keep them informed and to explain what the Government are doing. I am grateful for the welcome that my hon. Friend has given to the Government's efforts. Inevitably, one consequence of our inability to provide what might be called a running commentary on what is going on is that the field is left open for all sorts of speculation. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises that the Government are taking the necessary and appropriate action. We will continue to do so.

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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I commend the general substance of the Secretary of State's remarks, but why cannot he declare war on jargon as well as on terrorism? Why must the people involved be called sky marshals? Why cannot we use the English language properly and call them armed guards or security guards?

Mr. Darling: I have some sympathy with that proposition, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on these matters, used the term "sky marshals", so, to be helpful to her, I shall explain what they really are. They are, in fact, police officers.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) (Lab): Will the deployment of air marshals be restricted to the US, or will their deployment be widened to include domestic and European air traffic? If so, I suggest that that would pose a security problem in this country. Also, who will pay for the air marshals?

Mr. Darling: As I have just explained to the House, the Government look at intelligence several times every day. The measures—such as sky marshals or increased security—that we deploy will vary from time to time and from place to place. However, I repeat what I have made clear in the past: the Government will not comment on where, if, or when sky marshals are to be deployed. I hope that the House will understand that. I can tell my hon. Friend that the costs of the sky marshals will be met by the Government.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State say whether these armed guards have been deployed yet, or does their deployment lie in the future? Given that the policy has been under discussion for more than 12 months, will he say why the protocols have not yet been agreed?

Mr. Darling: On the latter point, I told the House a few moments ago that there have been considerable discussions with the airline industry over the past year. On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, I have nothing to add to what I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). For perfectly obvious reasons, which I hope the House will understand, we will not explain what action we intend to take or when we intend to take it. The reason is that to do so would provide the sort of information that might be of great help to the very people about whom we are concerned.

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