HC Deb 09 July 1990 vol 176 cc21-6

The following question stood upon the Paper:

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to improve maritime and aviation security.

3.35 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson)

We are determined to continue to take whatever measures are necessary to improve maritime and aviation security. The Aviation and Maritime Security Bill will strengthen existing aviation security powers and introduce new powers in relation to maritime security.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I report on the investigation into the incident at Heathrow involving Dr. Jim Swire. A senior investigator from the aviation security inspectorate, who is a former superintendant in the Metropolitan police, has interviewed all those involved in the incident. Although there are differences in the detail of the incident as recalled by Dr. Swire and his travelling companion and by British Airways staff, the investigator's conclusions are, first, that it is beyond reasonable doubt that British Airways were aware that Dr. Swire and his travelling companion were relatives of Lockerbie victims when they bought their tickets, when they checked in, when their hold baggage was searched and when they were on the flight; and, secondly, that there are grounds for believing that British Airways staff, knowing who Dr. Swire was, were insufficiently stringent in checking the radio.

I accept that, because British Airways staff knew exactly who Dr. Swire was, it was understandable that they should conclude that he was not planning to take an explosive device on board his flight. Nevertheless, I am asking my chief inspector of aviation security to write to all airports and airlines to emphasise that they must be especially careful in checking electrical items, irrespective of to whom they belong.

Mr. Colvin

I am sure that the House will join me in expressing sympathy—indeed, heartfelt condolences—to Dr. Swire for the tragic loss of his daughter in the Lockerbie disaster. Although he may have been a little unwise to go as public as he did, and in such a dramatic way, about the results of his escapade, he may have done the travelling public a service by identifying a weak link in the security chain.

Is my right hon. Friend happy that the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill, now before Parliament, will give him all the powers that he needs to ensure that individual airlines and companies involved in services at airports can be kept in check? Are those powers strong enough for my right hon. Friend to ensure that the necessary security procedures are followed? Does he acknowledge that there is no such thing as 100 per cent. security?

Mr. Parkinson

I wish to associate myself with my hon. Friend's remarks about Dr. Swire. I have met him on a number of occasions, and know that he is a genuine person who is desperately keen to ensure that aviation security is improved. The Bill will be useful when the House passes it, and I hope that there will be no more filibustering of the sort that we experienced 10 days ago. Not only will the Bill give me the power to give directions to a wider range of people; it will also give me the power to enforce them— including taking such action if necessary as, for example, closing airports, grounding airlines or putting directions on others who serve aircraft and airports. The Bill will be useful and it will provide the necessary additional powers.

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is right to say that it is virtually impossible to guarantee 100 per cent. security. However, that is no reason why we should not use every possible method open to us to reduce the risks.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that his explanation is both singularly silly and singularly worrying? Is he seriously suggesting that we should accept that, if someone is known to the authorities, that means that they are safe? Could not a device be planted on such a person on just that premise? Does he accept—I am sure that he does, privately—that we are in no way reassured by what we have heard today and that we hope that there will be much more stringent action in future?

Mr. Parkinson

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have been following events, or he would not have made that remark. First, Dr. Swire admits that he was one of the percentage of passengers selected. He was taken, his luggage was searched, and the radio was found. Dr. Swire admitted that he packed his bag himself. Those are his words, not mine. The individual making the investigation realised who Dr. Swire was, and she is, as I said, open to criticism for not taking such stringent measures as she might otherwise have done. However, she saw the suitcase and the radio, and Dr. Swire confirmed that he had packed the case—so there was no question of Dr. Swire having been duped.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As one of the Members of Parliament who represents part of Heathrow airport, I ask my right hon. Friend to clear up some confusion, for the sake of those of my constituents who undertake airport checks. Will he confirm that there was not a failure to detect a real bomb, and that Dr. Swire's action was not part of a genuine suicide attempt, for which staff are trained to be on the look-out? Will my right hon. Friend confirm also that the luggage in question was not unaccompanied, which is very different from the Lockerbie situation? Given that my constituents have an unenviable job to do, does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members who seek to score cheap party points over such an issue should tell my constituents whether or not they should show humanity and compassion towards an individual who so tragically lost a daughter?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, I will confirm that there was not a failure. The plane involved was one of a number selected at random each week for investigation. Ten per cent. of all hold baggage on those flights is checked. In this instance, the luggage was checked, questions were asked, and the radio was found. The young woman concerned, knowing the identity of the person carrying the radio, took the view that Dr. Swire was unlikely to want to blow up himself and the aeroplane. She is open to criticism, but she did not have the benefit of the hindsight that we have now. I thought that Opposition Members would accept that she tried to use her judgment and to be understanding in a difficult situation.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I speak as someone who, some years ago, travelled on an aircraft on which there was a live bomb. Is the Secretary of State aware that several people have already served prison sentences for carrying dummy or hoax bombs into aerodromes and airports and on to aircraft? Should not there be a common standard of justice, to ensure an end to nonsense of the kind that was perpetrated at Heathrow last week, when intercontinental flights were delayed by as much as three hours?

Mr. Parkinson

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, enforcing the law is a matter for the police. The police questioned him about his future conduct, and, in the very special circumstances they decided not to take further action. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there must be a common standard, and that it must be enforced.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in air transport the primary risk does not come from passengers who carry their own luggage and whose identity is known to those who undertake searches of them, but that progress needs to be made with securing greater international co-operation in improving security generally?

Mr. Parkinson

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. In the main, the real danger does not come from accompanied baggage, when the person carrying the bomb travels on the plane, but from attempts to put bombs on planes on which the persons planting them do not intend to travel. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is vital to improve international co-operation. That is why my predecessor and the American Secretary of Transportation took the initiative after Lockerbie of calling on the International Civil Aviation Organisation to draw up much tighter international standards. We continue to work for improved standards in international forums.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that it would be easier for us to accept the explanation that Doctor Swire was recognised if there had not been a fairly lengthy hiatus between his announcement that he had tried to put a fake bomb on board and British Airways explanation that he had been recognised? Even if one accepts that statement at face value, is the Secretary of State not aware that he raises doubts in my mind when he says that the radio was discovered by the random checking of baggage? Why was the radio not picked up by the X-ray machine when the hand baggage went through? If he will forgive me for raising the matter, what action is he taking about an Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science who disgracefully said that a hoax bomb was in his red box?

Mr. Parkinson

May I say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know studies these matters carefully, that this was not hand baggage. It was hold baggage. It was detected as part of the 10 per cent. of hold baggage that is searched on selected aircraft.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, my hon. Friend has already made it clear that he regrets the incident. I ought to point out that the same rules were applied in his case as would be applied in everyone else's case. When he made his foolish remark about his case being full of bombs, the supervisor was immediately called. He was taken to a private part of the examination area and asked to repeat the remark. He did not do so. He retracted it. Had my hon. Friend repeated the remark, the police would have been informed and he would have been interviewed by them.

Last year, there were more than 700 of these incidents at Heathrow and Gatwick alone, when jokesters—members of the public—made such claims once but withdrew them when pressed. My point is that the rules that apply to my hon. Friend apply to all those who travel and who make that sort of foolish remark.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Is not the ludicrous difficulty that we face that, although it may be possible to test the degree of risk in particular circumstances in a complex operation, as any modern airport is, one has to remember that there is a finite limit to the tolerance of the public when it comes to the delays and inconvenience to which they are prepared to be subjected regularly, if we are to squeeze out the last possible risks?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Our objective is 100 per cent. screening of all hold baggage. We have written to all airlines and to BAA asking them to come forward with their plans for reaching that target. We recognise that our airports were not designed for this level of search and that there are substantial logistical problems. However, that is the Goverment's declared aim and we intend to pursue it.

It was reported in the press when I wrote to the airlines that some of them were thinking of not co-operating. The point about the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill is that they will not have a choice about not co-operating; directions will be issued and they will be capable of being enforced. We are working towards 100 per cent. screening of hold baggage, but it will take some time.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, during the last 10 years, those who use Heathrow airport every week—as many hon. Members certainly do—find that delays of up to 30 minutes are not uncommon when one is being screened for security? In those circumstances, the weaknesses and deficiencies of attempting to achieve 100 per cent. security become obvious. Tempers become frayed and people grow very agitated when they realise that they may miss their flight.

Mr. Parkinson

I recognise that there is always a conflict between getting an aeroplane away on time and getting it away safely. People become irritated and think that the security checks are unnecessary until there is an incident, at which point they appreciate the importance of security checks.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I am still worried about airport security. Will the Minister now state to what extent the security forces are protected by being authorised to carry arms? Are they armed at present or are they to be armed following the passage of the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill, which we hope will be enacted next time?

Mr. Parkinson

I do not want to go into too much detail about our security arrangements, because that is a very good way of telling people who might be tempted to get around them what they face. There are armed police on duty at Heathrow and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, exercises are staged from time to time, with a full alert and fully armed soldiers. Our security arrangements do include the provision of armed security.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

In his discussions about attempting to reach the 100 per cent. target for security, has the Secretary of State discussed with the various airlines and the British Airports Authority the need for funding? In trying to reach that target, it will be essential to increase the number of personnel who work at our airports and the number of machines that are used to X-ray baggage.

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, and one of the difficulties, especially in the south-east, is the recruiting and training of suitable staff. Before someone can be accepted for a security job, his employment records, going back over many years, have to he checked. In an area where there is almost full employment, people are not prepared to be subjected to that search if they can obtain another job. The difficulty lies in recruiting people and keeping them; the problem lies not in a shortage of funds but in getting the right number of staff. As the hon. Lady knows, from time to time people have to be flown from less busy airports to help out at Heathrow in peak periods.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, 18 days ago, four hon. Members flew from London to Leningrad via Frankfurt? While the hold baggage was checked right through to Leningrad, there were no transit facilities for passengers at Frankfurt, as a consequence of which the passengers had to leave and re-enter going through all the customs and ticketing procedures. That gives members of the public an opportunity to leave their hold baggage to go right through and then to leave the airport entirely. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a thoroughly dangerous procedure at Frankfurt? Can he confirm that the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill will ensure that, if anything like that happened in the United Kingdom, he could stop it immediately?

Mr. Parkinson

One of the main aims of the new arrangements post-Lockerbie is to separate incoming and outgoing passengers and transit passengers. We recognise that that is important, as opportunities could arise for exchanging luggage bombs and weapons. We are therefore concentrating on this separation of incoming and outgoing passengers at every airport. We think that that is a major step in the right direction.

My hon. Friend referred to transit baggage. As he probably knows, any transit baggage going through Heathrow on American airlines is automatically the subject of examination even though it goes straight into the hold.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that we are fed up with continually being assured by Conservative Secretaries of State for Transport that our airport security is adequate, when time and time again its inadequacy is exposed by the press and others, such as Dr. Swire? Is he aware that, by limiting the inquiry into Dr. Swire's action and by blaming the operator staff, he is behaving in a manner that is typical of his Department, which is always shifting the blame? That is in sharp contrast to the Americans' full investigation into their Government authority's role in security matters—an approach that has been resisted by the Department. Is not the real lesson of this case that we require a full inspection of luggage, which is expensive and which takes time, but for which we called in our amendment—which the Government resisted—to the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill?

May I impress on the Secretary of State the fact that the relatives of those killed in the Lucherbie and Marchioness tragedies welcome the Department's announcement today of an inquiry into a possible injustice arising out of the Titanic affair 73 years ago but that they would like a full, open, independent inquiry into more recent tragedies, which the Department of Transport is avoiding?

Mr. Parkinson

We have just heard a typical rant from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). He is always getting fed up about something, while other honest people, like the security staff at Heathrow, have the daily business of examining the luggage of hundreds of thousands of people. They do not sit there like him, hoping that something will go wrong so that they can criticise. They get on with the business of trying to make our aviation more secure.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's remark about the presidential commission and full inspection of luggage, Lockerbie is at the moment the subject of a huge criminal investigation including the investigation of security arrangements at Heathrow. It is also the subject of an air accident investigation branch inquiry, and it will be the subject of a fatal accident inquiry. I announced last week that the Government exceptionally are going to fund legal representation for the relatives of those who died in that dreadful accident.

I want finally to deal with the hon. Gentleman's feeble joke about the Titanic.

Mr. Prescott

It was no joke.

Mr. Parkinson

It was made to a member of my staff by Dr. Swire at about 1 pm today. There will be a marine accident investigation branch investigation about the Titanic. That will not be a huge full public inquiry; it will involve just the marine accident investigation branch. Exactly the same kind of investigation is already being conducted into Lockerbie by the air accident investigation branch. The hon. Gentleman's point was a total and utter non-point.

So as far as the Department is concerned, I want to repeat what I said earlier—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East is really interested in aviation security, perhaps he should stop his noisy colleagues from filibustering on that vital Bill and perhaps we could get it through Parliament and help make Britain's airports safer.