HC Deb 25 February 1970 vol 796 cc1207-11
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Roy Mason)

The successive acts of violent interference with civil aviation—hijacking, attacks on aircraft on the ground and on ground facilities, and sabotage—in various parts of the world and from different motives have deepened the gravity of this international problem.

The nature of civil aviation makes these essentially international problems, which can be tackled effectively only by concerted international action. Her Majesty's Government have consistently supported and played their full rôle in such international action.

The main centre for international action has been the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to ratify the Tokyo convention on crimes in aircraft, and is seeking adherences to it by other States. The United Kingdom has played a full part in preparing the proposed new draft international convention against hijacking, which it is hoped will be put to a full diplomatic conference this year.

The United Kingdom supported, and has been active in, the work of the com- mittee of I.C.A.O., specially set up, on unlawful interference with international civil aviation and its facilities.

The Swiss Government yesterday asked I.C.A.O. to call a conference on the issue of safety, and the United Kingom member of the I.C.A.O. Council has been instructed to give full support to this Swiss proposal, so as to get an urgent meeting of Governments in the most useful form.

An emergency meeting of European civil aviation administrations has also been arranged to begin on 3rd March, in which the United Kingdom will take part at senior level.

In this country, all practical measures are being taken by the British airlines and airport authorities, in close liaison with the police and Government services concerned, to extend and tighten security safeguards applied to aircraft, passengers, baggage and cargo. Nevertheless, with the volume of movement through the world's airports and on international airlines, there can be no absolute guarantee against violence.

I explained to the House on Monday the temporary precautions which B.O.A.C. and B.E.A. had taken, affecting cargo traffic, while they took stock of the security situation. This was a matter of their primary responsibility for the safety of their passengers and crew.

The airlines have vigorously pursued the improvement of security. In the case of B.E.A., it is not due to send another flight to Israel until Thursday. It is well advanced with its security measures, which are being discussed with the staff. It then hopes to be open again to accept cargo and letters.

B.O.A.C. has similarly reviewed and improved security arrangements. It has been discussing these with its staff, including the aircrew concerned; and it then also hopes to be open again to receive cargo.

The interruption to flight handling services for aircraft of a number of foreign airlines at Heathrow by B.O.A.C. staff action has now, I understand, ended, and normal handling has been resumed.

Mr. Maudling

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are grateful for his statement? I am sure that we are all agreed that the airlines are right to place the safety of passengers and air crews in the front of everything else. However, this appears to go far beyond a mere matter of airline policy. It is a major international foreign policy issue. What is involved is not merely these hideous incidents on the airlines, but the use of terrorism against innocent people as part of an international conflict.

Are the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend satisfied that I.C.A.O. is the right body to deal with this? Am I not right in saying that some countries which may be harbouring terrorist organisations are not members, and should not the Government, through the Foreign Secretary, pursue this very major matter of international policy more directly with the countries which may be involved?

Mr. Mason

I agree partially with the right hon. Gentleman, but we differ on what is the right forum. The International Civil Aviation Organisation is really the best forum. Its members include very nearly all the countries to and from which airlines operate. If it wanted to take international action, it could very seriously affect any nation which was acting contrary to its major resolutions, especially on special facilities, over-flying rights and special handling facilities at airports in its member countries.

Mr. John Mendelson

While welcoming the decision to respond to one of the requests made by the Swiss Government, have Her Majesty's Government also had their attention drawn to the further Swiss proposal that joint political action should be taken against those Governments who harbour terrorists and allow the active preparation of these murderous acts on their soil? Would not that be action not for the airline companies, but for the Governments to take?

Mr. Mason

But it is initially for the meeting of the European civil aviation administrations on 3rd March and I.C.A.O. to consider how best they can do it and then to make recommendations to the Governments to take any further political action which is required.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is no good saying that, following a conference of the European civil aviation administrations and a meeting of I.C.A.O. summoned at the request of the Swiss Government, action will be taken against a nation which behaves contrary to its resolution if the source of threats is illegal terrorist organisations being harboured in those countries? What penalties will be exacted from those nations which give support and comfort to these barbarous criminals?

Mr. Mason

As regards harbouring people, whether they be terrorists or hijackers, the convention being laid down by I.C.A.O. on hijacking could prove effective, and there is no reason why it should not be studied within I.C.A.O. to find out how best to deal with what may be illegal terrorists.

So far, it has not been possible to establish the cause or fix responsibility for the Swiss explosion. If the explosion is proved to be an act of sabotage, it is a diabolical act of calculated mass murder, and we should, as we are doing through I.C.A.O., take all possible steps to render that sort of action ineffective.

Dr. Miller

Will my right hon. Friend impress upon my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that he should take a leaf out of the book of the Swiss Government in respect of that Government's clamping down severely on people coming from Arab countries into Switzerland? Does not he think that a situation like this would produce much better results than merely coming to this House and mouthing platitudes?

Mr. Mason

If I accepted that suggestion, the problem is that if it was an act of sabotage in an attempt to blackmail, it has succeeded. If all aircraft ceased operating through the Middle East, which is used by many as a vantage point for the world, it would render useless most airlines.

Mr. Goodhart

While appreciating that the airlines have an overriding responsibility for the safety of their passengers and crew, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that any unilateral reduction in services to Israel will merely encourage terrorists to redouble their activities?

Mr. Mason

I agree in great part with what the hon. Gentleman says. What we have been intent upon doing is to make the effort ineffective by holding back cargo and mail. Passengers have travelled to Israel just as they did before the weekend. B.E.A. and B.O.A.C. passenger services are operating normally. They are merely holding back cargo. Many other airlines are operating on the same basis. On its flights from Heathrow, El Al is also holding back cargo for 24 hours.

Mr. Howarth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there have been reports that certain visiting Middle East airliners are carrying armed guards? Is there any proof in that, and are these men allowed to disembark from aircraft flying into Heathrow carrying these arms?

Mr. Mason

That has not been brought to my attention. I am not aware of that.

Miss Quennell

Notwithstanding the I.C.A.O. meeting, cannot Her Majesty's Government press those Arab Governments who may be harbouring these bands to compensate the families of British victims? British lives have been lost as a result of the activities of these groups, and in one case the family of one of my constituents has been affected.

Mr. Mason

I am sympathetic to the hon. Lady's point of view, but so far as this tragic Swiss incident is concerned we must establish the cause and who was responsible. It may be that no Arab State is responsible.