HC Deb 16 January 1989 vol 145 cc23-9 3.33 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on airport security at Heathrow.

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

As I told the House in my statement last Tuesday, investigations continue into the Lockerbie disaster so as to establish, if possible, how the explosive device got on board the aircraft and where it originated. I also told the House what immediate security measures I had set in hand.

Within the last few days there have been reports of security in respect of airport workers at Heathrow. When I first heard of those reports on Friday I instituted immediate inquiries. I had a direction issued under the Aviation Security Act 1982 to all United Kingdom airports. The direction was issued on Friday evening and comes into force today. It introduces the following new provisions. Passes are only to be issued to airport employees or to personnel working for firms which the airport manager is satisfied are reliable and reputable. I think that the House will agree that some of the firms operating in this area in the past have been far from reliable.

Before issuing a pass—[Interruption.] I am sure that the House wants to listen to this. Before issuing a pass to the employee of another firm, the airport manager must receive an assurance from the firm that the individual is a suitable person, and he is to retain the right to withdraw passes from the personnel of any firm found to have sponsored an employee for a pass without proper care. Passes permitting unescorted access to restricted areas are not to be issued until the person concerned has worked either for the airport or for the sponsoring firm for at least six months. When passes are issued allowing escorted access only, the airport manager is to retain the right to withdraw passes from the employees of any firm that fails to ensure that those with escorted passes are properly escorted.

I also called in the chairman of BAA, Sir Norman Payne, to discuss Heathrow security in the light of the Daily Express report. I welcomed BAA's swift action in withdrawing airside passes from the employees of Skyliner Services Ltd. and asked Sir Norman not to issue any more passes to that firm for the time being. Since that meeting, there have been further reports of security breaches involving Fernley Aeroclean. BAA has told me that it is withdrawing all passes from Fernley employees at Heathrow as from tomorrow.

I also asked Sir Norman on Friday for an urgent report on ways of improving airport security, including intensifying searches of staff and their baggage passing airside; stepping up the searching of vehicles entering airside; closing some landside—airside crossing points so as to release security staff for use in tightening security elsewhere; increased patrolling of restricted areas. I hope to have Sir Norman's report within the next day or two. I shall then consider what further measures are necessary. I am determined that Heathrow airport and other airports in this country should live up to their reputation as being among the most secure airports in the world.

Mr. Morris

The Secretary of State will be aware of my interest, as a right hon. Member with an international airport in his constituency, in what are now widely seen as not only serious but wholly scandalous breaches of airport security.

In the wake of the appalling disaster at Lockerbie and the detailed exposures since then of the inadequacies in security at Heathrow by the Daily Express and the television programme "Eye Witness", is the Secretary of State satisfied that what he has announced will prevent any repetition of these scandalous breaches of security? What confidence can the travelling public have in the efficiency of the airport's security measures when two individuals were successfully able to pose as cleaners with two separate cleaning firms and to gain access, with no adequate supervision, to aircraft undertaking international flights?

Has the Secretary of State offered congratulations to the journalists involved in the exposures, as the Japanese authorities have done? Can he assure the House, with any degree of confidence, that the package of measures announced last week has closed all the security loopholes which have now been so fully exposed?

What trust can the public have in an airport management that can allow such life-endangering slackness to be tolerated in the first place?

Mr. Channon

I can well understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern, which I certainly share. He will be pleased to learn, with his Manchester interest, that my direction, issued under the Aviation Security Act, applies to all United Kingdom airports—to Manchester as well as to Heathrow and the London airports.

It is impossible to say that all security loopholes have been closed. I have laid down clear responsibilities by which the airport management and the companies concerned should abide. I have issued a direction to them; I am still awaiting the report by Sir Norman Payne on Heathrow security and on what further measures may turn out to be necessary. I hope to take action on the report in the near future when I have received it, and if I discover that some measures need to be taken, not only at London airports but at Manchester, I am sure that I shall have the right hon. Gentleman's support.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

The House will welcome the speed with which my right hon. Friend has reacted to the situation that was revealed last week. Can he say whether these passes will be photographic and whether those using them will have to go airside to be searched?

Mr. Channon

They will be photographic passes. I am shortly expecting a report from Sir Norman Payne about the whole question of searching staff who go airside. It is absolutely essential to have proper standards in this respect as well as in the other measures that I outlined to the House last week about baggage, with which the House was primarily concerned. It is essential to take proper steps on all fronts, and I am deeply shocked that the instructions and the circulars on this issued by the Department of Transport have clearly not been followed till now.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

As one who had the doubtful pleasure of travelling on an aircraft carrying a terrorist bomb, may I ask the Secretary of State to try to preserve a sense of proportion in these matters and to concentrate on the limited number of measures that could be really effective? Also, does he know whether certain sectors of the news industry are proposing to compensate those workers at Heathrow who lost their jobs through no fault of their own?

Mr. Channon

I shall be very surprised indeed if the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is correct. I entirely accept the first part of his question. We must have security commensurate with the level of the threat that may exist at any particular time, and all security is a balance of priorities. I am determind to achieve that.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that whether airports are in the public or private sector is quite immaterial because the Aviation Security Act 1982 gives him all the powers that he requires to enforce the security measures that he thinks are necessary? Is he happy that he has sufficient sanctions against airlines and airports that do not do what he says? Is he also happy that his Department has enough inspectors to visit airports and airlines in order to identify shortcomings in existing security arrangements?

Mr. Channon

On my hon. Friend's latter point, I intend to have a review to see whether it is necessary to increase the number of aviation security advisers. I shall do that not only because of the measures that I have announced today, but in case further measures have to be taken in due course.

My hon. Friend was right in what he said about public and private ownership. The direction that I have issued today applies to all United Kingdom airports regardless of ownership.

My hon. Friend also asked about powers. I think that I have sufficient powers to enforce these measures, and if there is a breach of the direction prosecution may follow. Nevertheless, I shall examine my powers in this field and, if necessary, I shall seek the House's permission to take more.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The Minister will recall that I raised during questions on his statement last week the precise question about the security of baggage handlers, cleaners and catering staff. Does he realise that the public will view his response today as inadequate because he is giving the responsibility for policing the scheme to airport managers who are precisely the people who should have been responsible for ensuring responsibility in the first place? Should not the responsibility lie with the Secretary of State for laying down guidelines for airport authorities to follow? Were the firms that were found out by LWT and the Daily Express simply the unlucky ones that happened to be investigated? Is there any evidence of wider security lapses? Has he any evidence that similar security faults exist in airports on the continent—for example, at Frankfurt—and will he seek to liaise with his European counterparts to ensure a general tightening of security?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman raises some important matters that I shall certainly be discussing with my colleagues in the European Community and possibly on a wider scale.

The hon. Gentleman asked about guidelines. Laying down guidelines is exactly what I do. I lay down guidelines or, occasionally, directions—as in this case—to the airports, and it is their responsibility to see that they are carried out. Clearly, in the light of what has occurred, I am now considering what further steps should be taken.

The hon. Gentleman, who was quite right to draw attention to this last week, says that the response is inadequate. I hope that he will bear in mind that I am expecting a further report in the next day or two, and I shall then consider what further measures are necessary. I am merely reporting to the House today the action that I have taken since Friday.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the firm and swift response that he has made to these disturbing revelations. I urge him to take no heed of the cheap party advantage being sought by those criticising him. Does he find it as incredible as I do that the aircraft entered by the reporters were left unlocked and unguarded? Will he take steps to require all airlines using all United Kingdom airports to lock their property when it is not in use and to guard it when it is unoccupied?

Mr. Channon

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said in the first part of his remarks. I am sure that the House as a whole is united in wanting to take the necessary steps to get our aviation security at the proper level. The House knows well that British airports have an international reputation for good security. I am determined to make sure that that returns. Whether or not aircraft are locked is a matter for the airlines concerned. Again, I shall be discussing this with Sir Norman Payne.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that the Minister accepts that there have been clear and unforgivable breaches of security, rather than simply joining some of his colleagues in attacking the journalists who have exposed breaches of security. However, should not there be positive screening of employees, rather than simply putting the companies concerned on a kind of scout's honour, and hoping that they will do the work that should be undertaken under his responsibility?

Mr. Channon

The measures that have been a requirement by my Department for some time require that the companies concerned carry out the necessary checking of people whom they employ. If, in the light of recent events, that looks inadequate, we shall have to see what can be done. I have announced the steps that we have taken, as a start, since Friday and they are a considerable improvement on what existed in the past. I shall keep matters under review.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I press my right hon. Friend further on that important point? Is it not necessary to have professional vetting of personnel who have access to aircraft? Are firms able to scrutinise the backgrounds of would-be employees adequately? How can they satisfy themselves as to the personal, political and family links of would-be employees? Is this not a matter for the security services?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend will recall that the Select Committee, which made a report on this issue some years ago, accepted that it would be difficult to vet all employees with airside access. It went on to say—this is the relevant point— It cannot be emphasised too strongly that responsibility should belong with the airport operator and that the operator must satisfly himself that any company which he delegates to carry out such tasks can be guaranteed properly to do so before he authorises the issue of passes to its employees. I strongly agree with that, and I shall be taking steps to ensure that that happens.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The travelling public, leaving aside the myriad of employers at the airport, look to the Government to protect their safety when they are travelling. Does the Secretary of State's statement mean that his Department has not been monitoring his own instructions to the companies? Is it a fair assumption that, without last Friday's Daily Express, the actions taken since then and the statement today would not have happened?

Mr. Channon

It does not mean anything of the sort. It means that the responsibility for airport security is clearly mine. I lay down the regulations that should be followed. Responsibility for following them is also clearly laid down.

Mr. Rooker

Who checks on them?

Mr. Channon

We check on them. However, it is disgraceful if those who have clear responsibility put on them do not carry it out, and that is what I am seeking to remedy.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I support my right hon. Friend's robust action, about which he has told the House. However, when he has the oppportunity to examine a video of the LWT "Eyewitness" programme, he will notice that the box of Terry's Moonlight chocolates that is apparently placed on the aircraft does not appear to have a cellophane wrapping around it, while the box that was subsequently found did have one. Does not this mean that there was some concoction in the pursuit of journalism? Will my right hon. Friend look into that, and if there has been a misuse of police time, will he ensure that appropriate prosecutions follow?

Mr. Channon

Prosecution is not a matter for me, but I shall certainly investigate my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Does the Secretary of State agree that part of the problem is the huge volume of traffic going through Heathrow airport and that that could be alleviated if there were more direct flights from regional and Scottish airports to Europe and north America? Will he tell Norman Payne that he should pay more attention to safety and to running the airports properly instead of, as he is doing now, trying to undermine Prestwick, which is a perfectly good airport that should have many more flights out of it?

Mr. Channon

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am at present considering the situation at Prestwick. I strongly agree that there should be more traffic from regional airports than there is at present. I am glad to say that traffic forecasts show that the proportion of flights from regional airports is going up rather than down.

On the question of safety, I have called for a special report from Sir Norman Payne which I hope to receive within the next day or two.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

Although I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has said and the steps that he has taken, does he agree that it is important in security matters for the new advisers to advise him about the practice in the airport and that any changes should be applied in an even-handed, level-headed way to ensure that the overall result is effective throughout the operation of the airport? This is a long-term, systematic and necessary exercise which is not helped by regular efforts on the part of the press.

Mr. Channon

I agree with everything that my hon. and learned Friend says and will certainly do as he suggests.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

Does it not sum up the Secretary of State's lack of concern for safety when we hear him congratulating the BAA on taking action to withdraw passes from one firm, although that will not occur until tomorrow? Will there be any prosecutions in the case—and I am not talking about the journalists?

Mr. Channon

Prosecution is not a matter for me, but the House will understand that a great many measures have been taken since Friday and I propose to consider what further measures might be necessary.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Is my right hon. Friend, like me, disgusted with the old story that Heathrow is one of the most secure airports in this country and the world? Will he take on board the suggestion that I made to him last week, and previously, that the police be given responsibility for security at Heathrow? May we have an assurance from him that some heads will roll at BAA as a result of the security failure?

Mr. Channon

As to the question of putting the police in charge, my hon. Friend will recollect that the Select Committee considered and rejected that proposal some years ago. Nevertheless, we are considering the question of the police and airports at present. I know my hon. Friend's views and am considering them.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Although I understand the wider considerations of Select Committees, my own experience with regard to security when we were in Northern Ireland—I say to the Home Secretary—was that there can be only one force in charge of security, the police force. If responsibility is dissipated among BAA and managers, things will go wrong. They will go wrong in any case, but the more I listen to comments on these matters, the more it appears to me that no one is in charge.

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman may well be right that we should change the situation and we are at present considering whether the police should have a greater role. At present the airport manager is responsible for co-ordinating all security measures at the airport. That is where the ultimate responsibility lies for co-ordinating security measures. I am determined to make improvements in the system.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that people control and building design are both necessary elements in ensuring adequate security? Will he ask the chairman of BAA to look urgently at the question of building design, when the buildings are refurbished or new building takes place, to ensure that that can also contribute to greater security?

Mr. Channon

Yes, Sir. I believe that that is being done.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The House and the public will be concerned about the recent exposure of security inadequacies at Heathrow, which appear to render worthless the numerous assurances that have been given by the Secretary of State about enhanced security at Heathrow. I am bound to tell the right hon. Gentleman after his performance this afternoon that the public will not be assured that he is any more on top of the job now than he was before.

Will the Secretary of State tell us whether his statements reject answers that were previously given on behalf of the Department to the Select Committee on Transport that security vetting of all airside staff is not cost effective? I hope that the Department no longer holds that view. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that his Department was wrong in 1982 in abolishing the separate airport police force and the aviation finance security fund? It is the view of the Select Committee on Transport that that decision contributed to the reduction of security at our airports. As the Secretary of State for Transport has direct responsibility for security at our airports, is it not about time that he reversed the decisions to which I have referrred and did much more to improve security and to give greater confidence to the travelling public in Britain?

Mr. Channon

I am determined to improve security at the airports in question and at other airports throughout the United Kingdom. I shall continue to take steps to improve security both in the short and the long term.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the levy and the police force. We are already examining the policing of airports and while the discussions are taking place I must operate the present system. If any changes in the policing arrangements were to occur, they would clearly take time to introduce and implement. I do not think that the abolition of the levy makes any difference. In my view, there are no financial restraints that would lead to inadequate security measures being taken at our airports. If there are, I shall ensure that they are not taken into account.

The Select Committee on Transport accepted that it would be difficult to vet all employees with airside access. As I have told the House on many occasions, I shall continue to review airport security, whether that involves baggage or staff. I am sure that from time to time the House will wish to hear further.