HC Deb 10 January 1989 vol 144 cc696-710

4.2 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

I fear that this will be a somewhat longer statement. I am sorry to inflict two statements upon the House, but it will wish to be kept in touch with events relating to the Lockerbie air disaster.

On 28 December, the inspector in charge of the accident investigation at Lockerbie announced that the aircraft had been destroyed by the detonation of high explosive. A team from my air accident investigation branch, assisted by people from the local emergency services and armed forces, has been working to find out where in the aircraft the bomb was placed. The chief inspector of air accidents is today issuing a bulletin that narrows the area to that of the No. 1 cargo and baggage hold just forward of the wing. It is too early to say yet where the article containing the explosive orginated.

It may help the House if I explain how the investigation is organised. Because the incident happened in his area, the chief constable of Dumfries and Galloway is in charge of the police investigation under the supervision of the procurator fiscal. The chief investigating officer is a chief superintendent of the Strathclyde police, and he is being given extensive assistance by other police forces in this country, including the metropolitan police, and by the FBI both in Lockerbie and in the United States. The investigators here have close links with the German police who are investigating the incident in Frankfurt, and other authorities in Europe and elsewhere who may be able to help to trace the movements of the passengers and their contacts immediately beforehand.

It is an enormous task recovering the wreckage and indentifying and tracing the passengers. It is being tackled with great professionalism and dedication. We owe all those involved a great debt of gratitude. Every effort is being made to find the perpetrators of this outrage and to bring them to justice.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I are also very deeply aware of the traumatic effects of this disaster on the people of Lockerbie. The Government have contributed £150,000 to the Lockerbie air disaster fund, and my right hon. and learned Friend and his officials are pursuing with Dumfries and Galloway regional council the question of wider costs arising from the disaster.

It is essential that we discover who put the bomb on the aircraft and how it got there. We must await the progress of the investigation. The signs of the use of a high performance plastic explosive—which was very probably, but not certainly, Semtex—point to a well-organised and well-supplied terrorist group. If that proves to be the case, I am sure that the House will join the Government and the Governments of most nations to condemn not only the despicable murderers themselves but any country which has supplied them, trained them, housed them or encouraged them.

There has been much speculation about the origin of the article in which the explosive was placed on the aircraft. I hope that the extensive, painstaking and detailed work on the wreckage, which is still being recovered, will eventually establish which consignment contained the bomb. It cannot help those seeking to discover the facts to speculate, and I am not prepared to do so. The fact that a bomb was on board an aircraft flying from Heathrow obviously raises questions about aviation security in this country. Security at our airports is acknowledged to be among the best in the world. Yet an aircraft with all its passengers and crew has been lost, and there have been grievous casualties on the ground. Immediate steps, in consultation with the Federal Aviation Authority and with the United States airlines, have been taken to increase security for those airlines' scheduled operations at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Prestwick.

Those measures were promulgated as soon as the accident investigator's announcement that the aircraft was destroyed by an explosive device was made on 28 December; the came into effect the next day. They require additional hold and cabin baggage checks, including checks of all baggage transferred from other aircraft, and more stringent requirements for protecting aircraft while they are on the ground. I am grateful for the co-operation we have had from the United States authorities and airlines and the airports.

Subsequently, on 5 January, I met the National Aviation Security Committee, which held a special meeting to discuss the implications of the Lockerbie disaster. The committee, which comprises representatives of the aviation industry, police and Government Departments, was joined by representative's of the FAA and the police team investigating the incident. The committee endorsed the measures already taken by my Department and the FAA. In the light of the committee's discussion, I decided to take immediately further measures in relation to cargo, misrouted baggage and cabin baggage. Other measures, which are now being vigorously pursued, were identified for the longer term.

One aspect of the tragedy that has attracted particular attention is the so-called warning in a security bulletin issued by the United States Federal Aviation Administration to United States airlines. Warnings and threats of one kind or another are an all too common occurrence in the civil aviation industry. My Department arranges for each one to be assessed in the light of other intelligence, and then considers whether any changes need to be made to the relevant security measures. In the rare circumstances when such changes are considered necessary, the airports and airlines concerned are always informed of the warning and of the action that they should take.

The United States aviation authorities operate a different approach, which is to issue frequent bulletins to their airlines and overseas officials giving details of the threats received. A copy of the FAA bulletin in question was received by my Department on 9 December. As is usually the case, it contained the explicit caveat that it was not to be further disseminated without the specific approval of the FAA's director of civil aviation security. It referred to a warning made by an anonymous telephone call to the United States embassy in Helsinki on 5 December.

The bulletin was subjected to the assessment process I have already mentioned. In this case, the United States authorities were asked for their assessment. We were given to understand that they had been in touch with the Finnish authorities. The Finnish police had made a full investigation of the call and previous calls of a similar nature and had concluded that these calls had little credibility. United States airlines were already subject to enhanced security measures. The warning was no more significant than many others received in the past, and it was concluded that it did not warrant enhancing those measures still further.

While the warning identified the airline and the Frankfurt-United States route, no mention was made of London, and the warning threatened that an attack would take place within two weeks, which expired before the tragedy took place on 21 December.

Aviation is an international industry and terrorism knows no boundaries. The security procedures we follow derive from international standards laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We have joined the United States Government in asking the council of ICAO to condemn this attack against aviation and to work urgently to improve standards of security. We shall also mobilise the support of friendly countries and pursue the subject in other appropriate international fora.

This was a hideous, murderous and indiscriminate attack on innocent people. It will have served only to intensify our efforts to protect travellers and to fortify our implacable resolve to defeat international terrorism.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The House will welcome this full statement by the Secretary of State confirming the rumours at the time of the last statement that the aeroplane was destroyed by a high explosive and raising the major issues of who and why, and of airport and aircraft security.

This morning I received a rather moving telephone call from a mother whose son died in the tragedy. She complained about the difficulties of identifying bodies in these circumstances —they were also evident in the American example. I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to examine the procedures for identifying people who have died in such tragedies and for allowing relatives easy access, when possible, to do that.

By confirming that this was a bomb, the Secretary of State raises the question why the Government did not inform the House earlier—on the last occasion when the right hon. Gentleman made a statement—about information that they held. The right hon. Gentleman knows, and his statement confirmed, that the information received about the company, the plane, the route and the time—to within two days—was all accurate.

The fact that the Secretary of State says that the information did not identify the fact that the flight would pass through London is not a source of comfort but another example of the way in which the Government ignored the seriousness of the threat. It is another example of how the Secretary of State—he has confirmed this in a letter given me a few minutes ago—deliberately withheld this information because he did not want to fuel speculation about the cause of the loss of the aircraft.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I appealed to the House on the day of his previous statement not to speculate about the cause. So why did the Secretary of State, within half an hour of leaving the House, confirm on public radio precisely the information that he has now confirmed to the House so many days later? Why did he confirm on radio on the Friday morning exactly the information which would presumably have fuelled the speculation that he wanted to prevent—the reason he used to justify not giving the information to the House?

I wrote asking for such a justification, but I was not aware then that the Secretary of State was leaving for his holidays, a judgment with which I publicly disagreed— [Interruption.] I now ask the Secretary of State to justify why he was prepared to give this information to a public radio programme half an hour after the House had heard a statement which was incomplete. We expected nothing less than a full statement from the right hon. Gentleman.

The Secretary of State must be aware that, when he makes statements at difficult times, hon. Members will refrain from asking certain questions—that has been evident from earlier statements—because of the tragic circumstances. But that requires him to observe the obligation to provide as much information as he can to the House so that we can make a proper assessment. Does the Secretary of State accept that, if he had given the information to the House, many of us would have changed our line of questioning—naturally—to airport and aeroplane security?

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now justify why he deliberately withheld this information from the House. It is a serious matter. It shows the difference between the way in which the Secretary of State acted on the information and the way in which other authorities —the Americans and the Germans—did. Does he accept that their response to the same quality of information was to increase security at their airports and on their aeroplanes and, in the case of the American authorities, to warn American embassies, some of which carried the warning on their notice boards? That shows the importance and the priority that they gave to this quality of information.

Do the same procedures for evaluating the many bomb threats that the right hon. Gentleman's Department receives in Britain still apply now? Clearly, they failed to deal adequately with this threat. The Secretary of State has told the House that, on receipt of this information, he inquired about and reviewed safety at Heathrow and on this airline, and was satisfied that the enhanced security was sufficient. So why was the British Airports Authority not informed of the enhanced security, or of the threat? Why did the American and German authorities increase security in response to it more than we in Britain did?

Is not the real tragic lesson of Lockerbie that it revealed muddles in procedure, excessive secrecy and insufficient priority for security cover at Britain's airports, which was exposed in a report by the Select Committee on Transport, issued in October 1986? That report was initiated at the request of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who was concerned about our airport security, and it exposed the inadequacies of security at Britain's airports. I ask the Secretary of State and his Department to review their response to that report. They rejected many of its major recommendations—the establishment of an aviation security inspectorate, and the re-establishment of an aviation security fund, paid for by levy, to pay for necessary equipment. Such a fund was established by a Labour Government in 1978 and dismantled by this Government in 1983 to cut costs.

We ask the right hon. Gentleman, too, to replace the many confusing private security firms, with a national airport police, and to reverse the trend of issuing advisory notes, rather than directions, on security. Above all, will the Secretary of State now reject his Department's response to the Select Committee's recommendation for banding machinery? It rejected the proposal not only on the grounds of cost but— apparently—because of the lack of available power points and space at counters in our airports. That attitude is not acceptable in the Department responsible for security at our airports.

Finally, it is clear beyond doubt from the many public expressions of support for such things, that the travelling public are quite prepared to wait a little longer and pay a little more if that will improve aviation security. They expect the Government to ensure that an adequate level of safety and security is established; they are far from convinced that that is being achieved now.

Mr. Channon

I shall start with the non-controversial point made by the hon. Gentleman about the procedures for the identification of bodies. I shall certainly look into them, but in the distressing case of Lockerbie I believe that only 39 bodies could be identified in the normal way. So, while it is difficult to know how to improve such procedures, they will be examined.

I strongly refute the hon. Gentleman's remarks about security matters. I refute what he said about muddle: there was none. When I came to the House on 22 December I was aware of the existence of the warning, but it was important, so soon after the disaster, to refrain from speculation about the cause—the hon. Gentleman said as much himself in a supplementary question that afternoon.—[Interruption.] That was the hon. Gentleman's remark—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Channon

Also, an FAA bulletin stated that it was not to be referred to without the specific approval of the FAA's director of civil aviation security. I refute the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of events and of what I said later.

As I have already said, we are reviewing the whole question of aircraft security. I reject what the hon. Gentleman said about our attitude to the Select Committee's report. My predecessor accepted the overwhelming majority of the recommendations some years ago. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to banding machines and to a levy. On the levy, there are no financial considerations that would lead to inadequate security being allowed. Security costs can always be passed on in an appropriate way. I see no reason at this stage to consider an aviation security levy, although I would not rule it out for all time. Banding machines play a limited part in increasing security and do not make the difference that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East pretends they do.

It would have been wholly irresponsible of me at that stage to release that warning. The House in general understands that, so I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seeks to drag up this red herring to try to divert attention from some of his more foolish remarks recently.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that no praise is too high for the rescue services, the police, the fire services, the local council, the regional district council, the community workers, the Churches and countless thousands of others from voluntary organisations? My right hon. Friend may still be discussing the matter with his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, but can he give an assurance that no part of the cost from the awful tragedy that stemmed from a terrorist bomb and which has now led to an international murder hunt will fall on the local community?

Mr. Channon

On the second part of my hon. Friend's remarks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is pursuing with the Dumfries and Galloway regional council the matter of wider costs arising from the disaster and he will note my hon. Friend's remarks. I know that the whole House agrees with my hon. Friend's comments about the emergency services and their reaction on the occasion.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

We all admire those who were involved in the collecting and analysing of wreckage from this terrible incident. Tribute has been paid to the professional services, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will also wish to thank the volunteers from the forestry organisations, for example, and the mountain rescue teams from the south of Scotland and over the border who helped in this incident.

I want to ask a few questions about the security aspects. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, immediately after the accident, a check was made that nobody was able to book through from Frankfurt to New York, check in baggage and then leave the plane at London? Can he confirm that that possible route has been ruled out? Secondly, can he confirm that the Czechoslovakian Government are now willing to engage in methods of identifying Semtex plastic explosive, which they have not been willing to do before? Thirdly, will the Secretary of State give the House some idea of the number of false bomb warnings received each year by his Department, so that we may keep the matter in perspective?

Mr. Channon

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. There were many volunteers at the disaster and they cannot be praised too highly. On the matter of checking baggage, I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he has asked. I hope that the House will understand that on some questions I do not answer fully and that there may be good reasons for not doing so. On the question of Semtex£

Mr. Prescott

Where is the national security in that?

Mr. Channon

I dispute that. I am trying to deal with an important matter. As to the question of Semtex, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) has had a meeting with the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister today. I believe and hope that a constructive result will follow from that. I understand that a Czech team will visit this country, beginning tomorrow, so I hope that the matter will be energetically pursued.

About 215 bomb warnings are received annually and there are a large number of other warnings as well.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

My right hon. Friend is right to describe aviation terrorism as an international menace. The House will be relieved to know that the matter is top of the agenda at the meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal. It is hoped that the organisation will agree on an international strategy for meeting the threat, although once measures are identified, there is the matter of their implementation. I accept my right hon. Friend's comment that there is no needed for a levy on passengers in the United Kingdom. We are a developed nation, but there are other countries that are not as developed, in which a lack of resources may result in such measures not being taken.

What is my right hon. Friend's reaction to the suggestion that there should be a $1 levy per ticket for every civil aviation passenger, which would raise about $180 million a year, which could be paid to ICAO for use internationally to ensure that measures are introduced at all airports? Security is like a chain, because it is only as strong as its weakest link. Surely our aim must be to eliminate the weak links.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. Clearly, there will be discussions within ICAO about aviation terrorism in the next few weeks—indeed, such discussions have already begun. I shall consider my hon. Friend's remarks and whether it would be appropriate for us to raise that question with ICAO. I should like to examine in detail the implication of my hon. Friend's proposal.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) referred to the Select Committee on Transport report on airport security, which was published in October 1986. It made 21 recommendations, 18 of which were accepted by the Government. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how many of the recommendations have been implemented fully since then and what monitoring has taken place to ensure that they remain fully implemented?

Will the Secretary of State now do as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East demanded and introduce the immediate banding of all hold luggage, which was the Committee's first recommendation and which was rejected by the Department of Transport in November 1986? Does he accept that it was nothing short of criminal not to pass on notice of the bomb warning to the appropriate people at Heathrow airport?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension on his last point. As I have said already, when assessments are made and it is decided that steps need to be taken, the warning is, of course, passed on. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was under a misapprehension when he said that the enhanced American measures already in force were not known to the British Airports Authority. Of course they have been known for some years and I have discussed them myself with the BAA. There is a misunderstanding about that.

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), unlike some other hon. Members, confirmed that the Government accepted the overwhelming majority of the Select Committee's recommendations two years ago. [HoN. MEMBERS: "What have you done?"] The overwhelming number of those 21 recommendations have been accepted and implemented. The hon. Gentleman referred to the recommendation about banding. My predecessor and the Department concluded that the recommendation on banding would not produce significant security benefits. If the hon. Gentleman or the Select Committee wishes to pursue the matter further we shall re-examine it. However, it was my view and that of my predecessor that that recommendation would produce few security benefits.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend on his strenuous efforts to keep us informed and on taking such an interest in this dreadful tragedy? The Opposition criticisms of his behaviour are totally unacceptable. Conservative Members believe that he has done an excellent job, and should be praised for that.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether he is concerned—as I am—about the way in which security is handled at Heathrow. There are too many people involved and no one person has the responsibility to make decisions. The British Airports Authority, the airlines, the baggage handlers, Customs officers and immigration officers are all involved, but no one has the final responsibility for security. It is no use having an airport committee that sits down and discusses the matter. I suggested to the Select Committee—this was also the view of the chief constables—that responsibility for security at airports, especially Heathrow in my constituency, should be with the police. I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider that possibility, so that we know where the buck stops.

Finally, is my right hon. Friend aware that many people travelling through Heathrow and other airports would be prepared to wait much longer if the baggage that leaves them when they check in was thoroughly checked on airside? Many of us know that that does not happen at present, and would like the opportunity to be at the airport much earlier—perhaps two or three hours earlier—and of knowing that the baggage would be checked once it had gone past the check-in desk.

Mr. Channon

I shall certainly bear that in mind, and I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said in his earlier remarks. I have no evidence at present that leads me to believe that security requirements laid down at London's airports are not carried out efficiently. I know of my hon. Friend's concern, however, and I shall examine all that he has said—and the similar points made by other of my hon. Friends—and get in touch with him.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the most urgently needed requirements is the establishment at all airports of explosive-detecting devices, and that the drive for improved security should not take place only at international airports? I do not wish to be alarmist, but if Americans are thought to be the prime target —that, apparently, is how the right hon. Gentleman's mind is working—will he take account of the large number of Americans resident in the north-east of Scotland who use Aberdeen airport? Finally, will he give the House an assurance that cost will not inhibit increases in security wherever necessary?

Mr. Channon

Of course we want as high a level of security as we can reasonably expect, and we must have security comensurate with the level of threat that exists at any particular moment. I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. We are carrying out research into new technology: at present we have a programme with the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence researching several promising new techniques for detecting explosives and weapons. I want to speed that up as soon as possible, and I am discussing the matter with my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while security standards at British airports, and at Heathrow in particular, have been very good, there must always be room for improvement? Does he agree that although, in the aftermath of a tragedy such as Lockerbie, passengers say—no doubt genuinely—that they will accept any extra cost or delay, sadly, once the months have passed, complaints about both costs and delays begin to grow, and there is pressure for a reduction in security standards in the interests of expediting the flow of passengers?

Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that to give publicity to any, or very many, of the warnings received by airports, airlines, and possibly my right hon. Friend's Department, would undermine security? Would it not provide an incentive for more hoaxers and mischief-makers to put out more false warnings, thereby confusing the security services and, indeed, causing them to disregard even warnings that appear genuine?

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree with all these points, particularly my right hon. Friend's last and extremely important point about the treatment of bomb warnings—and any other sort of warning. As my right hon. Friend said, there is always scope for further improvement in security, and I shall keep that under continuous review.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Obviously members of the nationalist parties represented in the House have already associated themselves with the expressions of sympathy and the rightful tributes to the rescue services at Lockerbie, and we extend them to those involved in yesterday's tragedy.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the statement made by the Secretary of State for Energy in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster? He made it clear then that no cost would be spared to preserve the lives of those who work in the North sea. May we have a similar assurance of the Government's readiness to spend money on airport security? Will the right hon. Gentleman look particularly at the problem of overcrowding at Heathrow, which is surely a major problem in itself for the security services because of the volume of traffic there? Is there not perhaps an argument for decentralising some flights to regional airports elsewhere, thus making it possible to ensure that security standards are observed and fully met?

I am delighted at what the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has said. Could we not have a full debate on security at airports, perhaps in a few months, when we are a bit more removed from the immediacy of the tragedy and our awareness of the implications of our remarks for the families involved?

Mr. Channon

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Lady says. Her last point, however, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who will no doubt wish to consider it. I am sure that the hon. Lady is right in saying that we should not debate the matter for a little while, until we see how the situation develops.

We must of course ensure that we have adequate security commensurate with the threat, and that must be achieved whatever the cost. The hon. Lady asked about overcrowding: naturally, as she has been one of the first to point out, we want to see as much traffic as possible— traffic of all kinds—going through regional airports. There are some encouraging trends: the proportion of traffic being borne by regional airports is going up and will, I think, continue to do so. Inevitably, however, many millions of people will continue to want to travel through London's various airports. Nevertheless, I shall bear all the hon. Lady's points in mind.

Mr. David Knox (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Both my wife and I were born and brought up in Lockerbie and went to school there, and my mother still lives there. My hon. Friend referred to the assistance that the Government have already given to the town, and I welcome that very warmly. Can he give an assurance, however, that the rebuilding work will be undertaken with the maximum possible speed? The sooner that it is completed, the sooner people in the town will have a chance to recover from the trauma of 21 December.

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend, with his local knowledge, is right to raise that question. I understand that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has already had talks with the local authorities about that and other relevant matters, and I shall ensure that he reads what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The right hon. Gentleman's explanation about the bomb scare sounds most unconvincing. It is as if something were being hidden from the House of Commons. Can he explain why, within half an hour of making a statement in Parliament in which he said that he was not willing to speculate on what had happened, he went on BBC radio and told 52 million people that there had been a bomb scare? Why was he willing to say that to 52 million people outside a BBC studio, but not willing to say it to Parliament? Could it be that he knew then that he was on the defensive, and that mistakes had been made? Was he beginning this whole stupid cover-up?

Mr. Channon

I have had debates with the hon. Gentleman in the past and he has not taken this line. He has entirely misunderstood the position. I have already explained, I think to the satisfaction of most of the House, why I did not refer in the House to the warning. If hon. Members are now criticising what I said subsequently on the radio, I must ask them to read the transcripts.

Mr. Bill Walker: (Tayside, North)

This and the previous statement clearly show the importance of the accident investigation branch to the safety, and the future safety, of air travellers. Air travel has public confidence, which is why so many people use it. It is important for us in the House not to give the impression that some aspects are less favourable today than they were. In fact, air travel is much safer now, because of the activities of the accident investigation branch.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the sadnesses on all these occasions is that we hear complaints, observations and views that bear no relation to the investigation branch's reports when they come out? All those connected with aviation—particularly, at present, those who work for British Midland Airways—who believe in the industry acknowledge that only when the accident investigation report has been prepared, presented and gone into fully, and it is understood why the accident occurred, can action be taken to prevent its recurrence. They accept, as everyone who travels should, that there is no way of removing the risk of terrorism or air accidents by 100 per cent. The only way to do that is stop flying, which is not an option that is available today.

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree with both my hon. Friend's points, particularly his tribute to the air accident investigation branch, which has been carrying out difficult work with extreme skill and thoroughness. I also agree with his point about the unhelpful nature of speculation in cases of this kind before all the facts are known, and I shall not indulge in that.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does the Minister agree that a potential major loophole in airport security, which has been exploited by drug barons in the past, is the quality of ground staff—baggage handlers and catering and cleaning staff? Therefore, will he consider improving vetting for those in such jobs who can pass airside, often with little scrutiny, and ensure that they are searched regularly to ascertain that they are not sleepers for terrorist groups, who could be activated as and when those terrorist groups wish?

Mr. Channon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into details on that point, but I shall take very much to heart what he says.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

My right hon. Friend is aware that I lost a young family of four from my constituency and the people who know them grieve for them because they were great contributors to the local community. Local police, not only those at the site of the accident, often have duties to perform in these circumstances such as notifying next of kin and looking after property, and I pay tribute to them. I also have a constituent who tragically lost his adult son in the crash.

Without at all wishing to he associated with the unworthy comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), may I say that the rumour that there was a warning before the crash circulated unchecked for several days after it at a time of maximum grief. That has caused increased distress because it appears that some people had had notice of the warnings while others had not. Is there anything that my right hon. Friend can do in such circumstances, for example in the way that sometimes happens in serious kidnapping cases, to reach an agreement that such information should not be prematurely released to the public?

My right hon. Friend was right not to put forward that information at the beginning because it could have increased the speculation, but, nevertheless, it reached the public domain and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could review the activities of his Department in such circumstances and discuss with the police and international authorities whether information that may cause unnecessary grief could be withheld from the public.

Mr. Channon

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. He was in touch with me before Christmas about the tragic events affecting his constituents. The United States Government, who operate in a slightly different way from us, told some of its diplomats about the warning. As I said in my original statement, the American and Finnish authorities said that the warning that they saw had little credibility. I am sure that the Americans are now reviewing their handling of such matters and I take note of what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

I too want to express my gratitude to the emergency services who undertook work at Lockerbie with great professionalism and courage. They included the rescue squadron service based at RAF Valley in my constituency. Most of its helicopters took part in the rescue work at Lockerbie. I am sure that the Secretary of State will acknowledge the tremendous work done by rescue service squadrons, not only from RAF Valley but from elswhere in the United Kingdom.

Will the Secretary of State note the anxiety of some hon. Members about the increased use of private security firms, not only at airports but at seaports? Will he acknowledge that some police authorities are worried about the inadequate professional training in those firms and believe that we should ensure that the highest level of competence in security obtains at airports and seaports?

Mr. Channon

I am not sure that I necessarily agree with the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, but that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention. However, I can certainly agree with his tribute to the rescue services. That was entirely right and I am glad that he has drawn that to the attention of the House.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I think that I speak for many outside the House as well as those on the Conservative Benches when I deplore attempts to make political capital out of this appalling incident. If I may correct the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), it was not the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) but I who made the suggestion, following the Air India disaster, with which the Committee agreed.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the majority of the Select Committee were satisfied that the Government's acceptance of the vast majority of our recommendations was reasonable, given the circumstances and the security record of the major British airports at that time? Will he also reflect on the fact that the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) was not a recommendation of the Select Committee? It was merely one of the points that we considered and felt was not right. But, in view of what my hon. Friend has said, will my right hon. Friend accept that the Select Committee may want to reconsider some of the proposals that we made then that were not taken up? May I have his assurance that if the Select Committee does that he will give the matters his most urgent consideration?

Mr. Channon

Yes, I naturally would do that. If the Select Committee wants to return to the subject I shall have no conceivable objection and I shall consider carefully any recommendations that it makes. The point that I was trying to make, which I think has been confirmed by my hon. Friend and by the Chairman of the Select Committee, was that the large majority of the recommendations were accepted by the Government. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the Government's reasonableness in doing that. I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend's remarks, that it is most unpleasant when people try to make political capital out of a national tragedy.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Putting on one side for a moment what the Secretary of State referred to as a misunderstanding about security finance, let me ask specifically whether the bulletin that he received from the American authorities precluded his Department from disseminating the information to the authorities at Heathrow without the Americans' permission,,. If so, did he seek the Americans' permission or was the decision taken in his Department not to pass on the specific details in the bulletin—not the enhanced security situation—to Heathrow?

Further, is it common knowledge in his Department, or does it require his Department's approval, that aircraft using British airspace have their nooks and crannies stuffed full of spent uranium?

Mr. Channon

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the plane crash at Lockerbie?

Mr. Rooker


Mr. Channon

There have been reports of small amounts of spent uranium in the tail of that plane. I understand that that is normal and I am told that there is no danger whatever. That point has already been drawn to my attention.

The hon. Gentleman has tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the issue raised in the first part of his question, which I shall be answering. I am not sure whether I shall be giving him all the information that he wants, but if I do not he will understand that I am not prepared to go further than my earlier remarks about warnings being subject to the assessment process. I hope that the House will be pleased about the clear message received from the American and Finnish authorities that they thought the warnings had little credibility.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that after the Clapham incident I had to make the rather unpleasant accusation that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was trying to make party politics out of a personal tragedy?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman is being vindictive again.

Mr. Adley

I am not being vindictive.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that after Zeebrugge, King's Cross, Clapham and Lockerbie the hon. Gentleman sought to hold my right hon. Friend personally responsible for what happened? Is my right hon. Friend aware that that attitude will be utterly deplored by most normal people in Britain? Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has the full confidence of Conservative Members as a result of the way in which he has handled that appalling series of tragedies, when he has done everything that he can to get to the bottom of them and to help people in their hour of need?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

The country will be disappointed with the unsatisfactory and evasive answer that the Secretary of State gave my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall). It confirms the Opposition's view that the Government's policies put the value of money much higher than the value of human life. I shall give the Secretary of State one more chance to come to the Dispatch Box and commit his Department to writing to the Select Committee to say exactly how many of its suggestions have been implemented as a result of its report on airport security about three years ago.

Mr. Channon

I have already told the House that the overwhelming majority of the Select Committee's recommendations have been accepted. If the Select Committee wants to pursue the matter further, that is its privilege, and we shall be pleased to answer any questions it puts to us. I shall be meeting the Select Committee tomorrow and I am at its disposal on any day, at any time on any subject. I shall not duck my responsibilities.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Will my right hon. Friend say whether it was necessary for the bomb to be placed in a particular part of the baggage hold for it to do its dreadful work? If that is the case, is he satisfied that those who loaded the aircraft at London and Frankfurt were properly security vetted? Has any organisation come forward to claim this ghastly crime, since terrorists usually like to let the world know of their successes?

Mr. Channon

A number of organisations have claimed this appalling crime. That was some time ago, as I understand it, but I will have to check that. However, it is extremely difficult to know how much credence can be placed on their claims. I will not answer the first part of my hon. Friend's question at this stage of the investigation. I may be able to give him a proper answer when the investigation has progressed further.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

Is it correct to conclude from all that has been said today that the loophole that allowed somebody to place a bomb on the flight has not yet been discovered and closed, but still exists to be used again?

Mr. Channon

No. The hon. Gentleman has not understood the situation. The investigation is not complete, so we do not as yet know where the bomb was placed on board. Therefore, it is impossible to say whether the loophole—if there was one—has been closed, since we have not yet identified it. My investigators and the police, who are in charge of the criminal investigation, are urgently and energetically investigating that. I gave the House new information today that narrows down the location of the bomb to one cargo and a baggage hold just forward of the wing.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

The evil of the people who perpetrated the act is almost beyond understanding. Unfortunately they are also resourceful and if we close the door now they may well find another one. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that all Governments are searching for the perpetrators of this crime, and if any are not, is he considering sanctions against them?

Mr. Channon

It would be going too far to say that I am satisfied that all Governments are taking the necessary steps. I am consulting my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign Office to find out what further steps we should take internationally, and we shall pursue them vigorously. It is exceedingly important that all Governments should take steps to root out international terrorism of this sort.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I impress upon the Secretary of State the importance of his previous response. Earlier today he called upon countries to condemn not only the despicable murderers themselves but any country which has supplied them, trained them, housed them or encouraged them. We have heard that sort of statement time and time again but when statements are made saying that perpetrators should be punished, we hear that we should not have an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. I remind the Secretary of State and the House that that is a limitation on personal revenge but it is the responsibility of Governments to protect their citizens.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that, despite the high level of security—for example, at Heathrow—we have not developed a mechanical approach to security? For example, I saw a former distinguished Governor of Northern Ireland being searched because he happened to be the one in five who was due to be stopped. In another incident since the Lockerbie disaster, it took one hour before the passengers on a plane with a suspected bomb or other problem could disembark and identify their baggage. One can only guess that if a bomb had been on the plane it would have exploded before the passengers had disembarked.

I urge the Secretary of State not to manifest the complacency I detected, especially in his response to the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) when he was pressed about the provision of compensation. Over two years ago in the House I had a similar assurance regarding innocent people in Belfast and they are still awaiting their compensation as the Department keeps fighting them In the courts.

Mr. Channon

I am sorry to hear that. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not complacent about the disaster. Anyone who had had to make the statements I have had to make in the past few weeks would long since have stopped being complacent about anything. I cannot say that one is ever perfectly satisfied about security. We shall attempt to have security commensurate with the appropriate level of threat that may exist at any time.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the reaction to other Governments who may have been less than co-operative, or perhaps malevolent. It is too soon to come to any conclusion about that, because the investigation is not complete and the identity of the perpetrators of the foul act is not yet clear. We are doing our utmost to try to find out.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Because part of Heathrow airport is in my constituency I have made a detailed study of all the changes announced recently. Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least one of the six changes announced by the Federal Aviation Administration recently—the X-raying of all hold baggage—is incapable of being implemented at Heathrow or virtually any other major international airport in Europe or America?

Mr. Channon

I note what my hon. Friend says. I do not want to go into detail, but we are discussing that, together with other matters, with the FAA.