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Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I, too, am disappointed that there is no bipartisan approach to this matter, as I expected there to be widespread support for measures that would increase security on the ground and in cockpits and improve security for passengers. However, my specific concern is whether the sky marshals will be armed. Most members of the public would welcome the presence of police officers when that is justified by intelligence, but does my right hon. Friend understand the concern felt by pilots and the public that the inclusion of the use of guns in the remit given to sky
Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on that point. The police officers in question will be armed and will act as the last line of defence if someone tries to take over an aircraft. That is an extremely serious situation and that is why the police officers will be armed. My hon. Friend made a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead, but it is worth bearing it in mind that at the moment all flights are operating as usual. Even when the decision had to be taken to ground flights to Washington and the middle east, the vast majority of flights went ahead as normal. All the evidence shows, as we discussed when I published the White Paper on aviation, that people are continuing to fly. It is important that we all send the message that although we live in a time of heightened security and we need to take exceptional action on occasion, people can go about their daily business and continue to fly when they need to do so.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): Will the Secretary of State ensure that we develop international protocols for the deployment of armed police officers on aircraft? Does he agree that sky marshals on incoming flights should always be public servantspolice officers or the equivalentand that private security guards should not be armed on flights? That could have security implications, and it would be better to ensure that only trained police officers play that role.
Mr. Darling: We have some experience of that. The hon. Gentleman is rightwe want to ensure that those who act as covert police officers are highly trained, and we will continue to ensure that they are.
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that since 1997 one of my constituents has been trying to bring to the Government's attentionin privatesome serious defects in the baggage screening process. For obvious reasons, I shall not highlight those defects. Would my right hon. Friend be prepared to meet my constituent to talk about those issues? If a passenger does not wish to travel on a plane with a sky marshal, would he lose the fare for that flight or would other flights be made available?
Mr. Darling: I recall the correspondence that my hon. Friend mentions, but my recollection is that we did not come to the same conclusion as his constituent. I or one of my colleagues will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about the matter. As I said earlier, it would not be a good idea to make a general announcement. The decision to deploy a sky marshal, or put any other security measure in place, is not taken lightly. It is made only when the circumstances justify it, and we cannot make specific announcements because that would play into the hands of those about whom we are concerned. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand and accept that the Government are doing everything that they reasonably can. Most people seem to accept such measures as a fact of life that we will have to live with for
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept from me that the public will on the whole be reassured by his statement? Can he intensify the professional discussions that his Department has had with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the European Civil Aviation Conference, the Civil Aviation Authority and BALPA, so that we get the best professional advice available on a matter that profoundly divides the aviation community? Has he taken a view on the merits or otherwise of arming flight deck air crew?
Mr. Darling: No, I have not taken a view on the hon. Gentleman's latter point, but I am grateful to him for his general welcome for my announcement. Most hon. Members appear to welcome it, although it was not entirely clear what view the hon. Member for Maidenhead was taking. On his other point, the Department keeps in touch with international bodies constantly on the issue.
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an interesting sign of the times that Labour Members are putting public safety at the top of the agenda, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is putting the capricious claims of a trade union at the top of her agenda? When it comes to legitimate concerns and anxieties, may I take it that the Government have looked closely at the experience of other countries that have been forced to adopt such security measures for some time?
Mr. Darling: Yes, the Government follow closely what is happening in other parts of the world and keep all such matters under review. I understand the concerns of the pilots and I believe that they can be met. Most peopleincluding the pilots' representative on the BBC this morningaccept that the age in which we live means that measures must be taken, unfortunately, that might have been ruled out of hand a few years ago. The Government's job is to ensure that we use every possible means to stop people who should not get on to an aircraft doing so, and alsowhere necessary and based on the intelligence we haveto deploy other measures. Most people who fly will be reassured by the fact that the Government are keeping such matters under review and will take whatever steps are appropriate.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Was the Secretary of State as surprised as I was by the suggestion by a representative of the pilots that if a sky marshal is on a plane the pilot should know his identity and where he is sitting? Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that any protocol agreed makes it clear that pilots will never know the identity and location of sky
Mr. Darling: That sounds to me like one of those matters in which it would be best for me to note what the hon. Gentleman says.
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): If callers to radio phone-in programmes are any measure of the success of a Government policyusually notI can tell my right hon. Friend that the overwhelming majority of callers and e-mailers to the Lesley Riddoch programme on Radio Scotland yesterday, on which I spoke about sky marshals, favoured the presence of armed sky marshals on flights. Does not the presence of armed sky marshals on Qantas flights out of Sydney to Singapore demonstrate that it is a global response to an international terrorist threat and not, as some have claimed, the British Government caving in to American pressure? That myth is peddled by the same people who present the USA as a greater threat than the international terrorists.
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right that all countries and airlines face this threat. How we respond depends on the individual circumstances and the intelligence that Governments receive.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): Having suggested this proposal to the former Home Secretary more than two years ago, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, although it is disappointing that the protocols are not in place. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was trying to make. [Laughter.] If hon. Members listened, they might understand. Attention is currently focused on outbound flights, but I reiterate the importance of ensuring the same level of security on inbound flights. If sky marshals are on an outbound flight, are they likely to be deployed on the return flight?
Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying what the hon. Member for Maidenhead meant to ask. The decision to deploy armed police officers on a flight depends on the intelligence and the assessment of the threat that we make. As I have said, it would be wiser not to go into details about when and where such people may be deployed.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The TUC and British trade unions have always been loyal and reliable allies of any British Government at times of war, and that also applies to the war on terrorism. The airline pilots union is a well-informed, reliable and efficient union. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that it will have full and direct access to him and his Department in the coming months, so that it can continue to provide its expertise and advice on this issue?