HL Deb 07 January 2004 vol 657 cc175-7

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as president of the British Air Line Pilots Association.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what instructions have been given to United Kingdom airlines concerning sky marshals.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, sky marshals may be deployed on UK aircraft in response to the threat assessment where it is judged that their deployment will contribute to the overall security of a flight or flights. Deployment will be with the agreement of the airline or airlines concerned.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. What is being done to improve efficiency on the ground? Will he confirm that in the air the pilot must have ultimate responsibility? Finally, should there not be a debate in government time on the matter as soon as possible? It is very important.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I confirm the point of principle that the pilot of the aircraft will remain in command at all times. Regarding my noble friend's request for a debate in government time, that is a matter for the usual channels. He will also be aware that there are numerous other opportunities that he might wish to take up with regard to a debate. I also bring to his attention—as he and all noble Lords are aware—that security issues are involved in the matter and, therefore, there are some difficulties in responding to certain questions.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether protocols on the deployment of sky marshals have been agreed with the pilots' union? Their original deployment was announced by the Secretary of State on 19 December 2002 and he made a further announcement in December last year. Is it not of public concern that the protocols have not yet been agreed, although I understand that the Secretary of State met the pilots' union yesterday? Will not UK airlines be put at a competitive disadvantage by the introduction of sky marshals because the United States Government are funding their cost?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, as the noble Viscount has recognised, there was a meeting yesterday with the Secretary of State after which BALPA expressed satisfaction with the broad outcome of the meeting, although there are some further details to be attended to. But since the announcement that we had the capacity to deploy sky marshals there have been discussions with the airlines and protocols have been agreed. There are some outstanding details and yesterday's meeting was an advance towards concluding those matters. The costs of sky marshals is borne by the Government.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that steps will be taken to consult passenger bodies? While I recognise that BALPA is important, as are those who represent cabin staff, there seems to be a body of people who are never consulted on any matter concerning aviation policy: the passengers. What steps are being taken to consult passenger bodies on the introduction of sky marshals, which I think would be welcomed by passengers?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise that the issues that needed to be discussed were the protocols and the basis on which sky marshals would be deployed in aircraft—that has been the subject of the discussions in the past year. He is right that passengers have major interests in the matter and the Secretary of State is mightily concerned to ensure that they are reassured that the deployment of sky marshals obtains only in those circumstances where clear evidence of a threat is manifest. The airline still has the choice of not proceeding with the flight if it regards the threat to be of such dimensions. But the Government are pursuing the whole issue of sky marshals with the sole intent of guaranteeing the safety of the travelling public.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, have the Government decided that sky marshals should he armed? If so, will they insist on the use of special bullets to reduce the danger in pressurised interiors of aircraft?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it is the case that sky marshals, or the British equivalent—which is armed police on aircraft—are armed with weapons and, of course, the intent is that those weapons should enable the sky marshal to deal with any emergency. But it is borne in mind that the discharge of firearms in an aircraft has great safety implications and the point to which the noble Lord alludes is important.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, can the Minister assure us—his Answer was partly reassuring—that the people who are chosen for this sensitive work have been suitably trained, including training with the air crew, and that they are using weapons that are safe within aircraft? Can he also say whether the Government have considered the danger that the knowledge that some flights may regularly have sky marshals will divert the attention of would-be terrorists to other lines and routes that are less rigorously monitored?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, no one has any intention of indicating when and where sky marshals are to be deployed. Therefore, there will not be evidence on which to base switching attention to less well guarded aircraft. Regarding training, I assure the noble Baroness that the Government's announcement that sky marshals were available for use when there were threats to particular flights was a reflection of the fact that we had put in place the necessary police training—these are armed police deployed to a different location.