Counter-Terrorism Measures in British Airports - Home Affairs Committee Contents

2  Proposed Measures

4. The Home Secretary told the House that "no one measure will be enough to defeat inventive and determined terrorists, and there is no single technology that we can guarantee will be 100% effective".[5] Paul Clark MP agreed, and told us that "the whole approach to security is multi-layered. There is no one operation or process that will guarantee you everything that you need. Having a multi-layered approach actually helps to make sure that you have a much stronger security regime".[6] During this inquiry, we have taken evidence on the effectiveness of all of the measures announced by the Home Secretary and Prime Minister, and inquired into what else can be done to improve airport security.


5. Full-body scanners of the type to be introduced in British airports use high-frequency "millimetre" radio wave or x-ray technology to produce a real-time, rotatable image of individuals as they pass through. The image produced highlights any foreign body hidden beneath clothing or elsewhere which may then require closer examination. Body scanner technology of this type has been used for many years by the customs authorities to scan identified passengers as they disembark at British airports.

6. Paul Clark MP confirmed to us that body scanners such as these "are starting to roll out now and they will continue to roll out throughout this year".[7] In subsequent written evidence he confirmed that body scanners had been deployed at Heathrow and Manchester airports on 1 February, and were expected to be deployed at Birmingham airport "over the course of this month".[8] In a further letter of 19 February, the Department for Transport confirmed that a timetable to complete the roll-out process had yet to be agreed with the industry.[9]

7. Lord West told us that these scanners were around 50-60% effective at detecting threats but he was confident that they would become more effective as the technology developed.[10] Given the level of effectiveness of the current generation of body scanners, Paul Clark told us that they would only be used as a secondary element of security—in addition to scans by traditional "archway" metal detectors; certain individuals would be selected either at random or after "various other measures [had been] taken into account" to pass through the scanner. He also confirmed that "there will be no right to refuse to go through the scanner".[11] Press reports have subsequently stated that children would not be exempted from this requirement.[12]

8. Mr Philip Baum is "a long-time proponent of body scanners" as an additional level of aviation security, but he cautioned against relying on one type of scanner, which he said would render airport security predictable:

    There are different types of body scanners out there using a variety of technologies, and I would like to see an environment where we deploy a range of different types of body scanner … so that when we arrive at the airport we do not know which technology is going to screen us.[13]

Richard Kemp agreed that it was "very important that we have multiple sensors; we do not just rely on a particular technology". He also suggested that rather than concentrating scanning equipment at one area of the airport terminal:

    security on an airport's concourse and routes by which people approach airport security should be stepped up including the potential use of [more advanced] terahertz body scanners around the approach to the check-in point, where people can perhaps be looked at at random.[14]

Richard Kemp also suggested that these arrangements and the "unpredictability" of airport security be publicised to provide a level of deterrence, "that does not exist at present because you assume that you are going to get there and you are going to be subject to a specific test".[15]

9. We were disappointed that new technology had not been introduced earlier, and were puzzled why scanners were only now being deployed on a major scale since the technology is already in use at British airports and trials of similar equipment had been carried out in 2006 in the aftermath of the "liquid bomb plot" and Operation Overt. Paul Clark suggested to us that this delay had been caused by the Government's desire not to "put in place security measures that are deemed to be at that time unnecessary, to create delays or inconvenience for the travelling public ... It is about making a decision about the proportionality of the measures that you put in place to protect those concerned".[16] He further told us that the Government aimed to bring in measures "that are relevant for the given time" based on the current assessment of the threat.[17]

10. The wider introduction of full-body scanners is a welcome development in airport security. We look forward to improvements in technology which will allow more effective and quicker scanners and urge the Government to work closely with industry in developing and introducing newer, improved models that would be more than 60% effective. We also recommend that the Government place greater emphasis on varying the measures put in place rather than relying on a mass deployment of one make and model Passengers, and terrorists, should not know what regime they will face when they arrive at airports; greater unpredictability and a higher level of deterrence is needed in airport security arrangements.

11. The institution of "proportionate" measures, as described by Paul Clark strikes us as a euphemism for adopting a wholly reactive stance and waiting for terrorists to demonstrate their new capabilities before implementing improved security measures. In view of the ongoing terrorist threat to airline passengers and staff we urge the Government to constantly look for further technological measures to improve airport security, This should be matter of the utmost priority for the Ministers concerned.


12. While body scanners can add another layer of security, they are appreciably slower than traditional archway metal detectors. To process every passenger through the equipment would therefore lead to long queues and increase the time passengers spend in airport terminals. Mr Baum told us that this is a problem in itself since it creates a target for suicide bombers within airport terminals and also creates "a lot of unhappy passengers who are perpetrating acts of air rage on board aircraft and they could one day bring down an aircraft".[18] To complement the deployment of scanners and to prevent long queues forming at airports, the Government's solution as the Home Secretary confirmed to the House and Paul Clark suggested to us, is greater use of "behavioural analysis techniques" or profiling. A trial of such techniques "is currently under way at Heathrow Airport". The Department for Transport has confirmed that decisions about whether, and how, behavioural analysis techniques should be rolled out more widely will not be taken until this trial is complete.[19]

13. According to Lord West, profiling, as envisaged by the Government, would be a "behavioural, intelligence-based assessment" based on, for example, how the passenger paid for his ticket, his luggage and his behaviour at the airport.[20] Lord Adonis confirmed to the House that profiling purely on ethnic or religious grounds would not be used.[21] Lord West told us that much of the intelligence-based assessment would involve computerised analytical tools to highlight higher-risk passengers before they arrived at the airports and these individuals would be targeted for further security checks.[22]

14. Mr Baum was keen to stress the importance of moving passengers through airport terminals quickly and preventing long queues forming. He called for an "intelligent" way to speed up the process. He suggested that the best way to do this would be profiling, "it is possible, it is do-able and it has been proven to work many times".[23] Mr Baum also urged us to view airport security as being "a continuum from the moment somebody makes their reservation until they reach their destination", and identifying potential threats through profiling "on the basis of somebody's appearance and behaviour, [and] also on their passport and ticket details and what we know about them," would be a key part of that. He stressed that many threats, "could be flagged up before they arrive at the airport" and differentiated between identifying threats on the basis of appearance and behaviour, and profiling based on crude racial or ethnic identification, "the best examples of profiling working are not on the basis of race, religion, gender or colour of skin".[24] Richard Kemp stressed that these measures would require greater numbers of better trained and more highly skilled airport security staff:

    I would extend it from strict profiling to behaviour pattern recognition to everybody who is involved in the airport security or the check-in process and any staff process being able to identify specific signs of behaviour, not for the colour of the skin or the type of dress but looking for suspicious ways in which they act.[25]

15. Following the Parliamentary statement of 5 January which announced the introduction of profiling, the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Home Secretary expressing, "serious concerns that the practice of profiling is, in its operation, likely to be discriminatory, contrary to domestic legislation … and harmful to community relations", and they "remain to be convinced that the proposals are an effective response to the current threat, and therefore justifiable".[26] They have echoed these concerns in written evidence to us, raising queries on the impact on specific groups such as the transgender population, the disabled and "people of certain religious beliefs".[27] These comments have been echoed by other groups such as the Quilliam Foundation.[28]

16. If done correctly, profiling is clearly a powerful tool against terrorism—the earlier and more precisely that a threat can be identified, the easier the security operation will be; terrorist activity does not make a distinction between people of different origins, faiths or nationality. While we therefore cautiously recommend the use of profiling, we note that its use is also fraught with danger, as we have also noted in our Report into The Cocaine Trade,[29] targeted security should not be perceived to be undertaken on crude racial or ethnic grounds. The code of practice announced by Lord Adonis on 1 February is therefore welcome. The Government should now take steps to publicise its existence and ensure that airport staff adhere to the guidelines. In addition to the requirement in the draft code of practice that security officers must have completed appropriate training,[30] the Government, should also mandate universal Behaviour Assessment and Security Screening (BASS) training, or similar, for all airport security staff at all UK airports, not just those operated by BAA, as a condition of employment.


17. Explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment which can detect small particles of explosives is already used in many airports. During our visit to Smiths Detection we were told that using ETD equipment is a quicker process than full body scanning and is considered the most effective way to identify specific substances. Given this we asked Paul Clark why body scanners would be introduced by the "end of the month", but trace detection equipment would only be operating "by the end of the year". The Minister agreed that trace detection equipment was an important part of the "multi-layered approach" but gave no firm date by which trace detection equipment will be introduced, or why its introduction would take until the end of 2010.[31]

18. In a subsequent letter to us, dated 4 February, Paul Clark confirmed that the deadline for airports to "have Explosive Trace Detection capability in place and operating" remained 31 December 2010. He also confirmed that many larger airports already possessed ETD technology and in these airports the number of individuals subject to ETD screening had been increased. He said that small airports which did not currently possess the technology were required to subject a greater number of passengers to hand searches as an interim measure.

19. Given the importance of explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment, particularly in conjunction with the introduction of "profiling", we do not understand why its introduction on a wider scale is not required before 31 December 2010. We still have not received a satisfactory answer as to why there is such a discrepancy in deadlines between the introduction of body scanners and trace detection equipment. We recommend that the Government speed up the deployment of ETD equipment and inform us why wider deployment will take up to 12 months.


20. While the Government has operated a transport watch list for many years, the information on it is stored primarily for immigration, not security, purposes.[32] The work on "no fly" lists and similar is therefore ongoing, and we received little detail on how the lists would operate in practice. Pending a Home Office-led review on the implementation of such lists, the Government has been unable to tell us—how large the lists would be; whether it would follow the USA model of designating specific countries as "countries of interest" and subjecting all passengers from those countries to tighter security measures; who would take responsibility for updating and enforcing the list; and how it would be applied in practice.[33]

21. While we appreciate that certain technical measures on the implementation of the proposed lists have yet to be decided, we are surprised that the Government is unable to share some relatively basic information on how the new system will operate. For example, it is disappointing that the Government cannot estimate, even to a low degree of accuracy, how large such lists are intended to be. Pending the results of the Home Office implementation review, we will not comment on the effectiveness of the "watchlist" measures except to suggest that this review should be completed as soon as possible and the results shared with the Committee. While we await this information we note the statement from Colonel Richard Kemp, a security expert, on the general effectiveness of watchlists: "These things are important but are only as good as the intelligence that feeds into them and only as good as the conscientiousness with which the information is spread around the place".[34]


22. We heard from industry sources that coordinated international action in the area of airport security is difficult because states struggle to agree on a common assessment of the threat and consequently differ in their interpretation of what action needs to be taken. Consequently while states have agreed common standards with regards to the "baseline" requirement of security measures to be taken at airports, they achieve this level by adopting different methods and applying different regulatory standards. This hinders efforts to raise the overall level of security and the development of new equipment by manufacturers.[35]

23. Niki Tompkinson, Director, Transec, Department for Transport, told us that Britain was a signatory to two sets of international standards governing airport security; the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards which govern 190 states; and slightly more stringent standards set by the European Union which are applicable to all EU Member states.[36] Paul Clark said that the Government have been pushing for stronger standards, both within the ICAO and the EU, but "there are limits to what we can insist on".[37] However, According to Mr Baum, both the IACO and the EU standards were misdirected and inadequate:

    the problem is that the international standards for aviation security are extremely low and are based on identifying suspect or prohibited items and not looking for intent.[38]

24. As well as criticising the regulatory standards in place, Mr Baum also cautioned us against placing too much emphasis on viewing increased security standards as the solution to improving aviation security. He told us that the desire for increased security measures will always be tempered by financial reality:

    It is all very well trying to increase the standards but somebody has got to pay for it at the end of the day and aviation security is a very expensive business. You have to have a regime in place that can work in the Cote D'Ivoire and in the Solomon Islands and in the United States and in the UK, and in coming up with a baseline it is always going to be significantly lower than we are going to put in place here.[39]

We asked Mr Clark and Ms Tompkinson what efforts the United Kingdom was making in improving airport security around the world. Mr Clark suggested that the British Government was providing skills and budgetary support to poorer nations:

    A very important point in terms of the work that we do … is working closely with countries where there are issues of concern in terms of security levels … and through various resources both in the counter-terrorism budgets and with expertise and skills that are within the aviation or security areas.[40]

Ms Tompkinson also told us that in extreme circumstances, while the Government has the power to prevent direct flights from certain countries landing in the UK,[41] the practice when the United Kingdom has serious concerns over the safety of a particular state, is to "negotiate with that country a reasonable outcome … we work overseas to offer advice, support and assistance to countries where we think the vulnerabilities are greatest … countries are quite keen to take us up on that".[42]

25. The Department for Transport's capacity building work is funded from the Countering Terrorism and Radicalisation Fund (CTRF) as part of the Countering Terrorism and Radicalisation Programme run by the Foreign Office. This fund is budgeted at £37 million for the period 2009/10 and £38 million for 2010/11. Since 2007 the CTRF has paid for 23 inward visits hosted by the Department to allow the sharing of UK "best practice"; 42 aviation security staff training courses; 14 explosive trace detection machines and 60 "archway" metal detectors or similar, for installation in poorer countries; and the hosting of 4 Regional Aviation Security Workshops.[43]

26. International standards in aviation security must be made tougher and the Government must push for tighter measures both in the EU and IACO, while reserving the right to unilaterally refuse direct flights from countries which are unwilling to agree tougher standards and encouraging IACO to be more willing to impose sanctions where needed. Rather than merely negotiating a reasonable outcome with the country concerned, the Government should be more willing to refuse direct flights, which in turn would create a commercial incentive for all states to improve their security regime. Help, both financial and technical, should be provided to help all willing states unable to reach the higher baseline. During this inquiry we have heard that a full-body scanner costs in the region of £100,000, it is clear that the funding allocated to the CTRF could therefore provide much in the way of equipment and training.

27. More must be done to tackle terrorism at the source; it will not be enough merely to improve security at British airports. Despite the work done by the Department of Transport overseas it is clear that weak points exist in global airport security and the security regime in some countries, through a combination of a lack of resources and training, will be relatively lax. The British Government should do more, more quickly to improve airport security across the globe, particularly in identified "hot spots" of terrorist activity. We therefore welcome the funding allocated through the CTRF and urge the Government to ensure a much greater provision of direct help in the form of body scanners, ETD equipment and training to vulnerable areas.

5   HC Deb, 5 January 2010, col 28 Back

6   Q 50 Back

7   Q 65 Back

8   Ev 17 Back

9   Ev 19 Back

10   Q 29 Back

11   Q 52 Back

12   See: "Profiling is essential in battle to beat terrorist threat, says Yard Chief", The Daily Telegraph, 30 January 2010 Back

13   Q 78 Back

14   Q 79 Back

15   Q 79 Back

16   Q 64 Back

17   Q 63 Back

18   See, Q 78 and Q 82 Back

19   Ev 19 Back

20   Q 36-38 Back

21   "Interim Code of Practice for the Acceptable Use of Advanced Imaging Technology (Body Scanners) in an Aviation Security Environment", January 2010, Back

22   Q 29 Back

23   Q 81 Back

24   Q 81-84 Back

25   Q 91 Back

26   Ev 22 Back

27   Ev 20 Back

28   See: "Talal Rajab: Profiling air passengers could make terrorist attacks easier", The Independent, 5 January 2010 Back

29   The Cocaine Trade, Home Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2009-10, HC 74-I Back

30   "Interim Code of Practice for the Acceptable Use of Advanced Imaging Technology (Body Scanners) in an Aviation Security Environment", January 2010,  Back

31   See Qq 65-68 Back

32   Q 34 Back

33   Ev 18 Back

34   Q 88 Back

35   As of 1 March, the European Commission had not introduced "EU-wide measures in response to the Detroit Incident". See Ev 19 Back

36   Q 55 Back

37   Q 59 Back

38   Q 98 Back

39   Q 99 Back

40   Q 51 Back

41   On 19 January 2010 direct flights by Yemenea Airways to Britain were suspended by the British Government. Back

42   Q 57 Back

43   Ev 18 Back

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