HL Deb 31 March 1994 vol 553 cc1202-4

11.22 a.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the recent Heathrow airport mortar attacks, they believe private policing will still be appropriate for Belfast International Airport.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)

My Lords, Belfast International Airport has operated under the threat of mortar attacks since the 1970s and the airport constabulary, under the direct control of a commercial management, has played an important role in co-operation with the RUC and the military in securing the airport. A detailed review of security at Belfast International Airport has just been completed and government security advisers are content with the proposed arrangements for policing following privatisation.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Will she agree that the post-Easter truce by the IRA, although clearly welcome in itself, should not lead us to relax in any way our expectations of what we require in the form of security? Will she further agree that, as we saw at Heathrow, airports almost by definition, because of their long perimeters and the heavy traffic involved, are soft targets? Therefore, will the Minister in any way reconsider the answer that she gave to me on 31st January at col. 1165 of Hansard that: airport security, once it is in private hands … will not be affected"? Specifically, in any crisis situation such as we saw at Heathrow, who will be in charge and to whom will they be accountable?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure that everyone in the House agrees with the noble Lord that any day without violence in the Province is good. Every day without violence is what we want. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that the administration of policing has proved effective over the past years. The same people will carry that out and if there is any lapse in security, the aviation security Act allows the RUC immediately to take over. Outside the perimeter, as is the case outside the perimeter of any airport, it is the police and security forces who will look after the peace and protection of the people of Northern Ireland.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Aldergrove is set in a different environment from Heathrow. Those who work there live out in the community; there is a military presence on one side with military aircraft, both RAF and Army helicopters. Who controls the security of that side of the airfield? Is there a division between the two? Does the Minister accept that, given the different environment, those who work in security at the airfield go home into the community where their lives are at risk? They need advice on how to look after themselves in that different environment. Above all, will the Minister advise me either orally or by letter as to the following? It is all very well to say that private police forces are responsible to private operators of the airfield, but Special Branch information will not be able to be given to them. Therefore, how can the private police forces do their job properly in that kind of environment?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the people who will be operating the security of the airport after privatisation are those who have done such a brilliant job in the past 20 years. I agree wholeheartedly that the policing of any area in Northern Ireland is a stressful occupation and that counselling for those people is important. But we are not changing the people. Perhaps I may also reassure the noble Lord that there will be no question of subcontracting.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, following the question put to the Minister by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, how can it be right to pass responsibility to a private company when Special Branch information cannot be made available to it?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the overall responsibility for policing throughout Northern Ireland is the RUC's. If the RUC is unhappy, it will draw the matter to the Government's attention.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, acknowledging that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and several units of the Army seem to work well in Belfast, does the Minister agree, as my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees said, that the last thing we want to do is to upset the magnificent police force we have throughout the entire country? If there is to be any vesting of airport safety in the hands of private police, will the Minister please make certain that it will in no way upset the discipline of and superb service given by our permanent police force?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured that the proposed arrangements have been entirely agreed to by the RUC.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether or not a value-for-money audit has been done, comparing the costs of providing security within Belfast airport by private policing and by the RUC? If so, which is the cheaper? If not, why not?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am not aware of a value-for-money audit in that area. I shall check and write to the noble Lord. However, when it comes to security in Northern Ireland, cheapness is not at the top of the list of priorities.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that a private security contractor at the City airport recently lost the contract for not properly observing security procedures? Given that precedent, I urge the noble Baroness to treat the issue of private policing of an extremely sensitive place with at least the seriousness of another review. It is of the greatest possible importance to people living in Northern Ireland, and indeed to the House as a whole.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I appreciate fully the concern of everyone about the security of the airport in Northern Ireland, and security in the Province as a whole. I should have thought that it was an advantage, lapses in security having been found, that the contract was taken away. It should reassure the noble Lord that these matters are monitored constantly. In the past year we have had reviews to look at this issue. I assure the House that those who carry out the reviews will also be affected should security lapse. We have confidence in the reports that we have received.