HC Deb 23 February 1970 vol 796 cc817-22
Mr. Corfield

(by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade what advice he has given to the British registered airlines in regard to flights in the Middle East in connection with either passengers or cargo.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Roy Mason)

Any relevant Government information as to risks to safety or operations is passed to the British air- lines concerned, which also have other sources of information. The airlines' decisions as to the services that they maintain, and other operations, are their own.

It is understandable, and I am sure that the House will think it right, that their immediate first concern, while stock is taken of the security situation, has been for the safety of passengers and crew. I understand that they expect to resume normal carriage of cargo as soon as they are satisfied that all proper safeguards have been achieved.

Mr. Corfield

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that it is the duty of the Government to give advice, in view of the events over the last weekend, which I am sure all of us utterly condemn, and in view, too, of the great importance and great difficulty of not appearing to give way to intimidation while taking every conceivable precaution in the interests of safety?

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how satisfied he is that the mechanical devices now available are sufficiently effective in detecting the sort of explosive devices which have caused so much damage and murder?

Mr. Mason

It is not intimidation now. The present situation results from an act. The Government have no power to issue a specific directive to an airline to stop operating a service for which it has a licence. Secondly, this should be kept in proper perspective. All B.E.A.'s and B.O.A.C.'s passenger aircraft are operating normally. It is only that the cargo or mail which they would carry has ceased.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Can my right hon. Friend give some details of the extra security precautions which he now proposes to take at Heathrow Airport, and, also, can he say something about the representations which have been made to him about the discontinuance of passenger services?

Mr. Mason

It would be foolish to go into detail, but very close liaison is established between the airports and the police. They have increased police checks, they are introducing additional identity checks and, as far as possible, they are limiting numbers on the aprons.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the widespread dismay that the decision of B.E.A. and B.O.A.C. has caused in Israel, where it is said that acts of piracy and terrorism are paying off in the halting of services of international airlines, including S.A.S.? In view of the international implications of what happened over the weekend, will the right hon. Gentleman take an early opportunity of raising it in I.C.A.O. with a view to taking steps, in conjunction with other nations, to halt these acts of terrorism and barbarism?

Mr. Mason

This matter is before I.C.A.O. in a different context, on the question of hijacking. It is important to establish the cause, and who was responsible. An Arab nation was not necessarily responsible for it. It may have been an entirely different body.

Mr. Shinwell

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why the State of Israel should be penalised because of a crime for which it is not responsible and which was committed either by unknown persons, or, as has been reported in the Press, by a guerrilla organisation in Jordan which has claimed responsibility? If it was necessary to make this decision, why apply it to Israel alone? Why not suspend air freight to the whole of the Middle East?

Is it not remarkable that, although the Government of which my right hon. Friend is an important member denounced the attack by the Israeli Government in Egypt the other day in respect of which the Israeli Government admitted a tactical error and said that it should never have happened, the Government have not denounced this murderous crime?

Mr. Mason

My right hon. Friend will be aware that only aircraft on the way to Israel, especially to Tel Aviv, are suspect, and not aircraft on their way to Arab States. Secondly, as I have already said, we must try to establish the cause and who was responsible for this act. Thirdly, we must keep this in proper perspective; the problem is one of air freight and packages of mail only. Passenger services are operating normally. The volume of air freight concerned as a proportion of Israel's total imports and exports is equivalent to only a half of 1 per cent.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, according to the news at one o'clock, the Swiss Government have attributed this incident to the Arabs and that every hijacking incident in the last year has been attributed to Arab nationals? How long have the public to put up with the uncertainties in their travels'? Surely it is up to the Government to give a lead in this matter. Unless the right hon. Gentleman does something, he will have more trouble with the aircrews.

Mr. Mason

Thinking about the aircrews and the passengers, I agree with B.O.A.C.'s and B.E.A.'s decision to stop the carriage of air freight and mail packages. They are harder to identify as a security risk, whereas it is relatively easier to check passengers' luggage. This has been a sensible and necessary decision. Passenger aircraft are still operating normally. B.E.A. has five flights each way each week, and B.O.A.C. has nine, all going on unhampered.

Mr. Mendelson

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, while this announcement is highly controversial, many people will accept the advice of the two companies that for a short period they wish to have time to check their security arrangements? Will he, however, also accept that there is a growing feeling, among people of all political parties and of none, in this country, that the Government now have a duty urgently to get together with other Governments to reach an international agreement whereby the international community takes action against those Governments which permit on their soil the planning of these outrageous criminal murders?

Mr. Mason

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's latter remarks, which were akin to the comments made by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). Internationally, the 53 airline managers have already had a meeeting today. They have adjourned, a security appraisal is going on and they will consider the matter afresh tomorrow.

Sir G. Nabarro

When the Minister said in his original reply that safeguards were being taken for the nationalised British airlines, does he include in those safeguards the searching or the X-raying of luggage or the examination of every piece of luggage accompanying a passenger, to see that it is not secreting an explosive or a bomb planted there by a person other than a passenger?

Mr. Mason

I do not propose to go into detail about that, but obviously, flowing from this incident, tightening up in connection with passengers and their luggage has already started.

Mr. Howarth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the effective means open to Governments, including our own, to put pressure on Arab countries which harbour these terrorist groups is to consider placing restrictions on the operation of Arab airlines?

Mr. Mason

Yes, but I am not satisfied that this is necessary yet.

Mr. Onslow

While the Minister is making up his mind about that, in which respect he seems to be a long way behind the House, will he at least undertake that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will send for the ambassadors of any countries which are known to give aid and comfort to these terrorist organisations and "mark their cards" very firmly indeed?

Mr. Mason

I will certainly draw the hon. Member's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Snow

Does my right hon. Friend say, or does his statement mean, that we are the only country which has taken this sort of action against these terrorist activities by the Arabs?

Mr. Mason

No, Sir. As an interim measure, the following action has already been taken. B.E.A. and B.O.A.C., together with Air France, Swissair, K.L.M., Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa, are not accepting cargo for Israel and are examining passengers' baggage. B.E.A., Swissair, Air France and Lufthansa have also banned mail. S.A.S. has halted all services to Tel Aviv. We understand that these restrictions are intended to hold the position while the situation is properly surveyed.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Will the Minister bear in mind that the absence of a senior Foreign Office Minister on the Government Front Bench is quite astonishing in present circumstances? What we are talking about, and quite rightly, is a steady deterioration, ever since the first hijacking, in the morals of air travel which has been tolerated by the Government. I am not making a political point. Will not the Minister bear in mind that it is high time that positive action on an international level was taken?

Mr. Mason

I gather that the hon. Member follows these matters closely. He knows that hijacking is already receiving attention by the international body which is responsible for civil aviation—I.C.A.O.

Mr. Rankin

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that as long as the flying of civil aircraft and the safety of passengers rests in the hands of the civil air transport authorities, he will not disturb that relationship in any way without giving prior intimation to this House?

Mr. Mason

I would not be in favour of giving a general direction which would amount to interference with airlines, their routes and especially safety until I thought that there was an overwhelming case for doing so. It would be a rarity indeed if I did it.