HL Deb 15 March 2001 vol 623 cc988-91

3.29 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they propose to protect airline staff and the travelling public from the dangers of violent attacks resulting from alcohol abuse.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, we have worked closely with airlines and the police in recent years. Airlines have taken steps to prevent intoxicated passengers boarding, to provide more information on the effects of alcohol at altitude and to limit the amount of alcohol served. The Government are considering legislation to strengthen existing police powers in dealing with drunkennness on aircraft, and are currently consulting on whether passengers should be able to drink their own alcohol on board aircraft.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I had prepared a slightly different supplementary question because I thought that another Minister would be answering. However, as I was deputy chairman for some 10 years of the alcohol misuse body in Parliament, I am used to rather "dickering about" at the edges of alcohol abuse in our society. On this particular issue, does the Minister agree that there must be some kind of technology available that the airlines could use to screen either those who have an identifiable alcohol problem, or that small minority who travel and are prepared to abuse the freedoms that they enjoy, regardless of anyone else? Apart from separating passengers from their alcohol during the flight, which he mentioned, surely there is some way of screening such people before they board an aircraft. Most of the other passengers who experience such situations can easily identify those who should never be put on the flight in the first place.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, there has been no active consideration of the possibility of breathalysing, passengers before they board an aircraft. However, in our air transportation consultation document, The Future of Aviation, we asked the industry for its views on whether there should be limitations on passengers drinking their own alcohol on board. We hope to have those views collected and in hand by 12th April.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, can I draw the attention of my noble friend the Minister to the excellent report of our Select Committee into the incidence of deep-vein thrombosis, and the evidence that emerged showing that the free availability of alcohol on airlines could be a contributory cause? My noble friend says that the industry is actively considering limiting the amount of alcohol available. Will he also bear in mind that the Select Committee recommended that an inter-departmental committee—indeed, the Minister has mentioned it—should look into the whole situation? It is not merely a question of abuse; it is a question of airlines trying to make themselves more attractive to passengers than other carriers by providing free alcohol. That practice ought to stop.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I am sure that the House and, indeed, passengers in general are most grateful to my noble friend for the information that he has provided about his experience of DVT, and for bringing this very real problem to our attention. As he said, we have initiated a departmental committee and various actions to try to ensure that the issue is more thoroughly researched. I am delighted to say that the industry has also shown its commitment towards trying to obtain further and better particulars on the problem.

As to drinking alcohol, one of the steps that the industry has very readily taken is to provide more information to passengers on the effects of alcohol at altitude. Indeed, it has also agreed to try, where appropriate, to limit the amount of alcohol consumed.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what response the Government gave to the report on Powers and Penalties for Offences on Aircraft and Aerodromes, which was produced by the UK Airport Police Commander's Group in January of last year? In particular, can be say what response has been given regarding its recommendation that drunkenness on aircraft should become an arrestable offence?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, the proposals put forward have been taken very seriously indeed. We have under active consideration the possibility of UK legislation being extended from the present maximum of two years' imprisonment for endangering the safety of an aircraft to five years, which would make such behaviour an arrestable offence. Some other forms of dangerous activity are also under consideration. Noble Lords may remember that we announced in the Queen's Speech that a draft safety Bill would be produced which would provide the opportunity of including the kind of legislative change suggested by the noble Lord.

Lord Newby

My Lords, can the Minister say whether his department has been in touch with British Airways about the incident on 28th December, when an aircraft on its way to Nairobi was nearly plunged into a fatal course by the actions of a deranged passenger, to ascertain whether there are any lessons to be learnt from that occurrence that might be taken on board right across the industry?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, we have discussed such matters with British Airways. Indeed, BA has been in close liaison with the Civil Aviation Authority, which is reviewing the circumstances in which the passenger boarded the aircraft. That review has not yet been completed, but it will be reported to Ministers. The CAA is also looking at the security of access to the flight deck on aircraft to ascertain whether it can be made more difficult for disruptive passengers to interfere with the flight of the aircraft. We understand that the Kenyan authorities have decided not to pursue the offender; he is considered to be mentally deranged. However, should he return to the United Kingdom, BA has said that it will prosecute.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, the Minister said that the result of the inquiry—if I may use that word—will be reported to Ministers. Can he say whether it will also be available to Members of your Lordships' House?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I shall certainly make every effort to ensure that that is the case.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware of another relatively recent case where a stewardess was stabbed in the back by a man who had been drinking vodka on board the aircraft and who subsequently broke the bottle and used it as an offensive weapon? Where it is known that a person has been drinking before boarding the aircraft, does not the noble Lord think that there is a strong case for the introduction of measures to allow the passenger to be searched and for any alcohol found on him to be removed before he boards?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

Indeed, my Lords. We are very aware of the Fiona Weir case, which happened in October 1998. From that deeply unpleasant event, we developed the Disruptive Passengers Working Group in April 1999. This group put together the unified reporting scheme for air rage incidents. In its meeting with representatives from the industry, the police, and with government departments, it has been considering voluntary and legislative measures. Those are the kind of measures that the airlines have under consideration, certainly as regards additional vigilance over who gets on to an aircraft. No doubt the ability to search passengers would form part of that process.