HL Deb 30 January 1995 vol 560 cc1273-9

4 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat the Answer to a Private Notice Question which has been given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in another place. The Answer is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, allegations were published yesterday that on certain specified days security arrangements for the Eurostar and Eurotunnel trains were inadequate. When these 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 which 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 properly applied: 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 it 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, which could be a breach of security requirements.

"Madam Speaker, like other right honourable and honourable Members of this House, I take security issues very seriously. I will decide what further action needs to be taken in the light of the reports which I have commissioned and any further security advice which I receive."

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the House will be indebted to the Minister for repeating the Answer which was given in another place about a matter which will obviously give rise to a considerable degree of public concern about security at the various ends of the Channel Tunnel route—not only here but in France and Belgium. While we recognise that the Minister cannot be as transparent about security issues as he might be about other matters, nonetheless the public will remain very concerned until they have some further response from the Minister following the inquiries that he has indicated will be undertaken.

What was exposed in the Observer newspaper yesterday gives rise to serious allegations of breaches of the Channel Tunnel (Security) Order. That order came into operation in February of last year. That the Government themselves are concerned about these matters is exemplified by the fact that they have ordered an inquiry to be undertaken. What concerns me is that the Minister gave assurances when the order was being debated last year that tunnel security would be as tight as security at international airports. Perhaps that was an unwise statement to make because I do not for the life of me see how that could be complied with. Nonetheless, the statement was made to Parliament and in a sense, therefore, Parliament was misled. The Minister shakes his head. In fact, the Minister of State wrote to members of the committee on 3rd March saying: John Taylor"— that was the Member concerned— also sought assurances that the security of Channel Tunnel services will be comparable with arrangements at airports. I was happy to give him that assurance". That is as plain as a pikestaff. I think it was an unwise statement to make, but it was made.

Is not an abundance of evidence disclosed in the newspaper article that luggage was not checked or X-rayed before passengers boarded trains and that passengers were not challenged, randomly or otherwise, by security officials? Indeed, I have to say that that appears to be borne out by the evidence of a number of lorry drivers, truck owners, journalists, and my own wife, who perhaps naturally was not challenged. She said to me last night that she should have told me about that experience. There has to be some proper security check when people are going on to the train.

The Minister has already alluded to the seriousness of one matter where a package was left on board the train when someone had disembarked. In another instance a passenger was asked the question, "Are you British?", and it seemed to be enough to assure everyone when he replied in the affirmative. I am not sure that that constitutes the greatest surveillance with regard to security measures.

I do not want to take the matter very much further except to say that the Government have an obligation to report further to the House as and when their current inquiries, together with the operators' inquiries, are completed. We do not ask them to go into great detail but we want to know that the situation will demonstrably improve from the present.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Answer given in another place. Certainly the press cuttings from yesterday are quite alarming and the chief concern of everyone must be that we can provide well-based reassurance to the public.

I wish to ask a couple of questions. Does the Minister recall that the Select Committee of this House on the Channel Tunnel Bill recommended that the Kent police should be responsible for security in the Channel Tunnel and that that recommendation was not accepted by the Government? Is that still the Government's view? In the light of these events, is it sensible to exclude the police in this way? Secondly, given that we are to expect a further statement after reports have been commissioned, will those reports which the Minister's colleague is commissioning include one from the Commissioner of Police on current security arrangements covering services through the Channel Tunnel at Waterloo and elsewhere?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we have discussed very briefly the effect of the alleged potential breaches of security which were highlighted in newspaper articles yesterday. There is little beyond what I said in my original Answer that I can usefully add to what has already been said. I wish to make two points. First, there is not and never has been a requirement for all passengers and vehicles to be searched. As was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I do not intend to go into further detail as to the exact proportions, how and so forth, but it has never been a requirement that all passengers and all freight should be searched.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, highlighted an exchange between my right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Freeman, and Mr. John Taylor. The quotation that I have—I believe it is within the bounds of order to give it; if not, I hope the House will give me leave—is: Security at the tunnel will be comparable to that of airlines and of airports commensurate with the threat". That is the crucial element. We are not saying—to my knowledge it has not been said—that the security measures for the Channel Tunnel should be the same in all circumstances as those for airlines. There is a different level of vulnerability and a different level of threat. It has always been our intention to tailor our security arrangements to the level of threat—that is provided to us by our security advisers—and the level of vulnerability of the mode. Those are the vital important factors relating to this situation.

To respond very briefly to the point that was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I do not believe that it helps anyone to insist on much more stringent measures than are necessitated by the threat. The Government's aim has been to balance the level of threat and the type of vulnerability against the requirement for security measures to counter those threats.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the tunnel is peculiarly vulnerable to terrorism and other outrages by the nature of its construction and operation? Are the Government satisfied that the precautions now being taken are sufficient to prevent a catastrophic incident?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Channel Tunnel does indeed have a high degree of vulnerability. But it must also be contrasted with aeroplanes, which also have a very, very high level of vulnerability. It is extremely easy to destroy an aeroplane, as we were tragically shown with the example of Pan Am flight 103 at Lockerbie. A very small amount of explosive can do very great damage to an aircraft. Of course the Channel Tunnel is vulnerable. That is why we have put in place security measures. We believe that that level of security is appropriate to the current level of threat.

The questions that have been asked have been about how those security measures are operated. As has been said, we have asked for reports from the operators of those measures. When we have received those reports we shall decide whether further action needs to be taken.

To reply to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, which I am afraid I earlier omitted to do, about the role of the Kent Police in this matter, it is important to note that a great deal of what has been said as regards the allegations concerning security has been about people travelling on the Eurostar service from Waterloo. That must be balanced against the role of the Kent police, who will clearly not have a role in London but they do elsewhere.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, has the Minister spoken with his counterparts in the French Government; and has he any information as to whether anxieties have been raised in France similar to those raised in the United Kingdom?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords. We are continually in touch with the French authorities on these matters. They have security concerns as indeed we do. That is why we have decided on certain levels of measures. It is important to recognise that a number of authorities believe that there is also a considerable risk of attack from the French side as well as from the British side.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the question of the role of the Kent police is highly relevant in relation to the case that was put to him by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who talked about the vulnerability of the tunnel? Is the Minister aware that the Select Committee of this House recommended specifically that the Kent police should he members of the safety authority? For some mysterious reason the Department of Transport would not accept that recommendation. Will he agree that it might be a good idea, in the light of general public concern on this matter, to look at that question again? It seems odd that the Fire Service is represented on that committee but that the police are not.

Secondly, on the matter of preparation for dealing with potential terrorist problems, is it not desirable, quite apart from getting reports from the two companies, to get one from the people who have direct experience; namely, the anti-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, as I have indicated, the particular division of my department which deals with transport security issues liaises with the security services, the police and other bodies as it thinks fit to determine levels of threat, levels of vulnerability and how to go about preventing any attack.

The noble Lord referred again to the role of the Kent police. The Kent police are very important in that area and they have a particular role to play. I will investigate further the references that the noble Lord brought to my attention. If the noble Lord will permit me, I will write to him on the subject.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, the Statement today, based on a PNQ in another place, has arisen because the Observer newspaper did what it did. Does the sub-department in the Department of Transport for which the Minister is responsible ever check to see that what Parliament intended is carried out; or do we have to wait for newspapers to do this from time to time?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords. As with aviation security, my department makes announced and unannounced visits; it checks security regimes by means of unannounced exercises.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, apart from terrorism, I understand that two outbreaks of fire have been reported. Can the noble Viscount say whether he knows anything about the causes of those fires and what is being done to increase precautions against such incidents?

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords, for the moment I cannot give the noble Lord the information that he asks. I will investigate the reference to the fires that he mentioned and I will make sure that he is made fully aware of the causes once the investigation is complete.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I hesitate to introduce a slightly different slant to this question—still less do I wish to get into a debate as to whether I am pro or against Europe—but there is a different angle to this issue which I hope might just be considered. We live in an age when travelling is more and more common; we all do it increasingly. I hope that the time will come when a journey from Waterloo to Paris might be regarded as no more than a journey from Westminster to Green Park or St. James's Park on the London Underground. I am bound to say that I would regard an explosion in that tunnel as being at least as dangerous as an explosion in the Channel Tunnel and just as damaging to everybody's prestige. I hope that we shall not go overboard on the one without having regard to the fact that there is a wider implication.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I quite agree that my noble friend has made a very valuable point. He has highlighted the difference between vulnerability and threat levels.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, during the passage of the Bill a question was raised about the carrying of insurance for the tunnel. The Government refused an amendment that sought to make sure that the Channel Tunnel company would insure the tunnel against any possible risk. Can the Minister tell the House —and if not, perhaps he can put a reply in the Library—what insurance is carried in regard to the tunnel, who carries the risk and whether or not the people who are alleged to carry the risk have sufficient assets to meet any claim?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I will investigate the insurance information that the noble Lord seeks and I will place a reply in the Library.

4.19 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I should like to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure—I suggest for 10 minutes.

Noble Lords


Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Baroness—and perhaps while I am speaking she can take instruction—what is the reason. There does not seem to be a case for adjourning for any purpose whatever. I assume that we are to continue with the Government's agricultural Bill. Why cannot that be done forthwith? There seems to me to be no case for an adjournment—unless someone would like to explain what that case is.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we have here my noble friend who is to move the amendment; we do not need Ministers.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, perhaps I may very briefly reply to the noble Lord, whose interventions I always welcome, on the subject of the agriculture Bill. We have just taken a Statement and I of course welcome any intervention that the noble Lord would like to make in my particular remarks. We have taken a very important Statement on the Channel Tunnel security measures, and we will shortly be proceeding to the—I give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I wonder whether the Government would like to comment on the fact that at the start of business today we were advised that a Statement would be made "at a convenient moment" after 3.30. My understanding of that phrase is that it is at the convenience of the House that the Statement is made. The Front Benches and Members of the House have had to consider some amendments to the Agricultural Tenancies Bill which we probably had not expected to debate so early because we had the Statement at four o'clock rather than shortly after 3.30 p.m.

I wonder whether the Government could respond to the criticisms that I am sure Members of your Lordships' House will have about not only the delay in receiving the Statement but also—dare I say it?—the tardiness in resuming at the end of the Statement the business which the Government placed before the House.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the convenience of the House of course is of the utmost priority at all times. I regret to advise Members of the House that proceedings have been totally out of order because no Motion has been put. Therefore, we shall not move the proposed Motion.