HL Deb 18 June 1996 vol 573 cc160-2

2.56 p.m.

Lord Geddes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What procedures or arrangements exist at Heathrow and other United Kingdom airports to enable passengers who have been evacuated from a baggage hall during a security alert to return there to retrieve their baggage.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, arrangements for the evacuation of passengers from baggage halls and their re-entry at UK airports are a matter for the airport concerned. They are responsible for drawing up contingency plans in consultation with interested parties and taking account of all relevant requirements, including those in respect of aviation security.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that I pose the Question from personal experience on 22nd May at Terminal 1, Heathrow, at approximately a quarter-to ten in the evening? There was an evacuation which included myself. We were sent to what I think is called the land side for perfectly reasonable reasons. We were then told that we could go back into the baggage hall to retrieve our baggage. Some 500 people, including myself, then spent 45 minutes trying to get back into the baggage hall through what I can only describe as rather poor facilities for necessary security checks. There were passport controls, baggage check controls and ticket controls. Will my noble friend draw this situation to the attention of those whose responsibility it is to deal with such matters and seek to have the facilities somewhat improved?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the Government are satisfied that the airport has properly discharged its responsibilities for planning for evacuation. The noble Lord let me know the content of his inquiry. I am asking the managing director of Heathrow Airport to write to the noble Lord about the evacuation on the night in question.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that it would be an act of great stupidity to take out of the hands of the security people involved in any incident the right to keep anyone outside the periphery of activity? Is he further aware that but for the magnificent performance of the Greater Manchester Police, the Greater Manchester Fire Force and other related services there could have been a holocaust in the centre of Manchester? Only the action of those services prevented loss of life. I believe that it would be dangerous to start wavering and to allow people back on a personal basis. If we take the matter out of the hands of the security forces, we are asking for a mountain of trouble.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to congratulate the emergency services on their work throughout the United Kingdom. Of course security is of the utmost importance throughout all airports in the United Kingdom.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Earl really telling the House that the Government disclaim all responsibility for matters of the kind raised by his noble friend Lord Geddes? Is it entirely a matter for the private interests involved, including the airports and aircraft companies? Surely the Government must have some responsibility as regards safety and possible retrieval and loss. It cannot be sufficient to leave it entirely to other authorities.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord does not have the true facts of the case. Since the disaster in Lockerbie in 1988 the Government have done a huge amount to improve transport security in the United Kingdom and internationally. Her Majesty's Government have taken a leading role in agreeing with other countries a range of measures to improve security—the review of the National Aviation Security Programme, the cargo security regime and the Accounting and Authorising of Hold Baggage for Carriage (Triple A). A great many measures are involved

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that of course it is the responsibility of government to lay down standards for security and ensure that they are enforced; but it must be for the management of the airport companies themselves to be in charge of the day-to-day operations?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. Transec, a division of the Department of Transport, also holds a watching brief.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, the Minister's noble friend makes a good point. If airports are incompetent about letting people back to collect their baggage, they are probably incompetent about clearing people from the area.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I think the situation at Heathrow in which my noble friend was involved shows how efficiently the security services at airports work.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is surely no sustainable suggestion that the airport authorities at any airport in the United Kingdom are incompetent in dealing with emergencies of the serious kind that unfortunately have arisen from time to time? There may be a difficulty about getting back into the baggage hall, but that seems to me to be less significant overall.

Will the Minister accept that we on this side of the House wish to echo what has been said about the magnificent work of the emergency services in Manchester the other day? Undoubtedly it reflects the work of the emergency services in so many unacceptable situations that have arisen through the activities of the IRA. I am sure that the whole House will wish to condemn those activities in no uncertain way.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. However, we must remember that security is impossible to guarantee 100 per cent. Her Majesty's Government, with the support of noble Lords opposite, are determined to ensure that ours remains among the best in the world.