HC Deb 30 January 1995 vol 253 cc685-90 3.29 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on security in the channel tunnel.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

Allegations were published yesterday that on certain specified days security arrangements for the Eurostar and Eurotunnel trains were inadequate. When those allegations were brought to my attention at the beginning of the weekend, I immediately called for urgent reports from the two companies.

The Channel Tunnel (Security) Order 1994 requires the operators of the tunnel and of the trains that go through it to carry out counter-terrorist security measures. Similar measures are applied in France and Belgium as agreed between our three Governments. The operators are responsible for ensuring that the security measures are applied properly. Here, my Department's inspectors give instructions, offer advice and make both announced and unannounced inspections.

The Government's requirements have not changed since the tunnel was opened. The House will not expect me to detail the requirements. Suffice to say that security measures are closely tailored to the threat, as assessed by the Government's security advisers. Among other measures, all traffic in the tunnel, passenger and freight, is liable to be searched. There is not and never has been a requirement for all passengers or vehicles to be searched. On the other hand, permitting a passenger to get off a train prior to arrival at his destination and leaving behind an unattended bag is a potentially serious matter, and could be a breach of security requirements.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I take security issues seriously. I will decide what further action needs to be taken in light of the reports that I have commissioned and any further security advice that I receive.

Mr. Meacher

In the debate about the Channel Tunnel (Security) Order last year, the Minister for Public Transport wrote to members of the Committee on 3 March stating: John Taylor also sought reassurance that the security of channel tunnel services would be comparable with arrangements at airports, and I was happy to give him that assurance". Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of that correspondence and will he confirm that that commitment is very far from being met? Even if that requirement were excessive, will he not accept that, given the symbolic significance of the channel tunnel, there is a balance to be struck between ensuring speed of throughput and non-intrusiveness of checks on the one hand and a reasonably high level of security on the other, and the Observer revelations yesterday suggest that that balance is being struck at too low a level of security?

How are the right hon. Gentleman's assurances today about security in the channel tunnel consistent with random checks which show that most cars are not even subject to the most cursory search, most foot passengers' baggage is not scanned electronically, and only a few lorries have been required to pass through the enhanced X-ray scanner? Is it not a breach of procedure—the Minister seemed to agree that it was—that passengers were permitted to leave the Eurostar train without any checks being made of their baggage? In light of what he said, what action is he taking to ensure that that does not happen again?

Since the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the implementation of agreed security procedures in the channel tunnel rests with the Department of Transport security division, will the Minister say how many inspections of the tunnel operators' procedures that division has carried out so far? When was the last inspection and to what extent did it reveal any deficiencies?

In addition to the risk of terrorist bombing, will the Minister also inform the House whether evacuation procedures have been fully tested and practised in the event of a breakdown or fire in the tunnel, taking into account fully loaded trains and a throughput at peak capacity of a train in the tunnel every three minutes—which means that there could be up to seven trains in the tunnel at any one time? Have evacuation procedures been properly tested under those conditions, including the requirement for following trains to reverse out of the tunnel? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman publish the results?

There can be no absolute guarantee of passenger or vehicle safety, but does the Secretary of State accept that the laxity in procedures that has been exposed is not acceptable, and can and must be tightened without significant intrusiveness or loss of speed of transmission?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am aware that my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Public Transport wrote to members of the Committee, referring to his remarks to the House. I noted with interest that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) gave only a partial quotation over the weekend, as did the Observer. My right hon. Friend told the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor): security at the tunnel will be comparable to that of airlines and at airports, commensurate with the threat."—[0fficial Report, 16 February 1994; Vol. 237, c. 982.] Those words were left out of the quotations that filled the airways and the hon. Gentleman's comments over the weekend.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a balance must be struck, and not in a way that deliberately or in a focused manner seeks to underestimate the importance of security. He and I are as one on that. However, I will not prejudge—and the hon. Gentleman will understand why—the reports that I have sought. Given my personal background, I take security issues particularly seriously. I will study carefully the reports that I urgently commissioned, and if I judge that further action should be taken, I will not hesitate to take that action.

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about evacuation, certificates to run trains through the tunnel require safety checks of the sort to which he referred. I hope that he finds that reassuring.

I want to end on a common note in responding to the hon. Gentleman's questions. I was pleased that he recognised that there can never be an absolute guarantee of safety—but together we share the view that all appropriate steps should be taken, for the sake of not only safety but public confidence.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who has served as a Northern Ireland Minister retains a special interest in security matters? Is he aware that I have had several opportunities to study the operation of the channel tunnel, the most recent being yesterday? Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who approaches security issues is wise to do so with discretion and balance—two qualities in short supply at the Observer, and of which the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is devoid?

Dr. Mawhinney

I agree with my hon. Friend that he and I, and others, have special reason to take security matters seriously and that his experiences, like mine, are not lightly forgotten. I come to the issue against that background. If the newspaper in question had been concerned about security issues, one might have thought that it would raise them with the appropriate people—the operators—in a framework that gave them an opportunity to respond adequately and appropriately to the allegations. But that might not have created such a good newspaper story.

Having said that, I recognise the seriousness of the issues and of the allegations made. They must and will be investigated. If I believe that further action must be taken, I will ensure that the operators take it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The whole House will recognise that we cannot prejudge the reports that the Secretary of State has asked for. I hope that he will accept that from the Liberal Democrat party at least.

We also welcome the right hon. Gentleman's most important remark this afternoon—that he accepts full ministerial responsibility. He has shown as much by making this statement.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is widespread concern about the mechanisms—who is watching the watchdogs? The Minister takes responsibility, but what is there to ensure that those who are responsible for surveillance, evacuation and emergency procedures are themselves under the surveillance of the Minister, or at least under his authority? If no such system is in place, the Minister must be aware that incidents of this sort will continue and will constantly be referred back to the House and to his desk at the Department.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about not prejudging the issue: I agree with him. If he was saying that security measures must be related to the threat, including the vulnerability of the system, I also agree with him on that important point.

I said in my answer to the private notice question that my Department's inspectors, independently of the operators, give security instructions, offer advice and make announced and unannounced inspections of the system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find some encouragement in that.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the synthetic outrage generated by this stunt is not allowed to obscure the genuine and long-standing concern of some of us about the training of channel tunnel staff and the co-ordination of the emergency services that work with the tunnel operators? My right hon. Friend will know that the recent bi-national exercise left a number of unanswered questions; one would hope that, as a result of the lessons learned, action will have been taken.

Will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that a further bi-national exercise is held, so that we can establish whether the lessons of bi-nat 6 have been learned, and so that we can test the security services?

Dr. Mawhinney

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am not going to refer to security arrangements in any form from the Dispatch Box. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West for his recognition of that. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that all appropriate steps need to be taken and that they are likely to include training, which is an important and legitimate aspect of security arrangements. I should have thought that the whole House would be as keen as I am to ensure that public confidence in the system, which is high, remains high—and justifiably so.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I am delighted that the Minister has not responded to attempts to politicise this issue, because it is not—it should not be—remotely a party political one. The channel tunnel is the No. 1 terrorist target in the world. It would not take a major terrorist organisation to destroy it; that could be done by a tiny organisation with access to relatively unsophisticated technology.

Will the right hon. Gentleman review the idea that security must be tailored to the threat? Although that seems a smart phrase to use, and although security can be upped or lowered at the margins, the threat from a tiny organisation can be such that no amount of manipulating the response to it will result in preparedness for someone trying a long shot from 60 yards.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that my point is valid. I ask him not to be beguiled by security analysts who describe the threat as greater or lesser. When the threat is thought to be low is the very time when some organisation can try it on, possibly with disastrous consequences.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about not making this into a partisan issue—although he will understand that, just occasionally, the temptation is large. [Interruption.] I am glad to note that he does not belong to the same luddite tendency as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) appears to belong to.

A security assessment is not just a beguiling figment of the imagination, but having said that, I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We are tending to move into an Adjournment debate when putting questions to the Minister. Could I now have brisk and direct questions to the Minister?

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when the reports are forthcoming, he will not publish them? Does he agree that the British public have the safest transport systems in the world when it comes to security? They can have total confidence in the system. In particular, they can have confidence in this case in the Department's own inspectors, in the Kent constabulary and in the Gendarmerie Nationale.

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend is right in all respects. I have travelled through the channel tunnel with full confidence and expect to do so again very shortly.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

As my constituents have suffered from a number of bomb outrages, will the Secretary of State, in the new review of channel tunnel security, include consideration of possible terrorist outrages at the St. Pancras terminal?

Dr. Mawhinney

The hon. Lady is getting somewhat beyond the scope of the question, and in the light of your instructions, Madam Speaker, I will not respond.

Madam Speaker

I am sure that the Minister is correct. Perhaps the hon. Lady will put a question to the appropriate Minister on the appropriate day.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Has not the gleeful scaremongering in this case got something to do with the gleeful mudslinging in the case of Ebbsfleet station, in as much as it puts in jeopardy the future jobs of people in Kent? If there are instances, as there appear to be, of lapses in security, is not the proper response to take it privately to the competent authorities, all the way up to the Secretary of State if necessary?

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend is right; if there are concerns, suspicions or allegations, they should be properly investigated and those reports studied carefully. I will do that.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I am sure that the Secretary of State will accept that the issue concerns more than just the south-east of England. It concerns, of course, the other regions of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Bearing in minding that fact, does he accept that his resentment at the coverage that the Observer has given to the issue reflects the image of a departmental team caught on the hop? Does not the disarray of Transport Ministers show that the public are paying the price of the merry-go-round in Transport Ministers that exists under the Government? Does that not reflect his state of unreadiness?

Dr. Mawhinney

First, let me make it clear that I have no resentment about the Observer running whatever articles it wishes to run—be they true, false or somewhere in between. Secondly, there is no state of unreadiness. Thirdly, I have explained to the House exactly who is responsible and the various layers of responsibility. Fourthly, if action needs to be taken, it will be, and in a way which I hope will reassure the hon. Gentleman of the competence and readiness of this team to pursue its due responsibilities not only up to the next election but beyond.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, far from the picture painted by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), his Department looked at the most sophisticated scientific techniques of non-invasive automated cargo inspection as far back as the beginning of 1991 and that programmes were undertaken to test that technology? Without giving the House the details of that technology, because it is a matter of security, will he confirm that the most sophisticated measures were looked at and will continue to be examined by his Department, especially the security officials within it?

Dr. Mawhinney

For reasons that I explained earlier, I will not be drawn into discussing security measures, but my hon. Friend is right to bolster public confidence in the arrangements that are in place.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

There was a strange omission in the Secretary of State's response today. He said that his own inspectorate has powers to inspect and see what has been happening. On what occasions has it inspected? That was asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), and there was no response. Was it satisfied with its inspection? If not, did it report that to the Minister? What action was taken?

Dr. Mawhinney

As the House will understand, that question involves security. I will not be drawn on such issues.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Is it not a fact that no inspectors have been appointed under the auspices of the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, and that the inspectors referred to by the Secretary of State are mere civil servants—although, no doubt, senior bods? They have no statutory basis. When will the Government clarify the respective responsibilities of the French authorities, the British Health and Safety Executive and the Channel Tunnel Safety Authority? When will proper inspectors be appointed, and who precisely are the inspectors referred to by the Secretary of State?

Dr. Mawhinney

The House will have noted the hon. Gentleman's contempt for civil servants, security advisers and inspectors. I must tell him that that contempt is restricted to him. As for co-operation between national Governments and national security authorities, it is very good.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Has there not been legitimate concern that Eurostar's marketing strategy has downplayed the special nature of this form of transport? Has that not led to insufficient emphasis on the need to arrive on time, and hence to very rushed security measures before people board the train? Travellers have been unsure whether they are boarding a train with the same security arrangements as an aircraft, or an ordinary, conventional train. Even Members of Parliament have fallen foul of the arrangements.

Dr. Mawhinney

I do not accept that for a moment. Coincidentally, the other day someone told me that they were concerned about the amount of time for which it was apparently necessary to be present before the train's departure, precisely because of the various security arrangements that had to be made before boarding was possible.