HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc161-70 12.32 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con)

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the introduction of sky marshals on flights from the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The United Kingdom aviation security regime is one of the most developed in the world and was further tightened in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the United States. As the House would expect, as part of their overall counter-terrorism strategy, the Government keep aviation security under permanent review and adjust measures to be taken by airlines, as and when necessary.

The measures that are available to us to use take various forms, ranging from different types of screening and searching at airports, through protection of aircraft while on the ground, to measures implemented in-flight, including steps to prevent any takeover of the aircraft cockpit, and, where appropriate, the deployment of covert armed police capability, known as sky marshals, announced by the Government on 19 December 2002.

As the Home Secretary and I announced on 28 December, in response to the present heightened state of alert in the United States, additional security measures on the ground and in the air have been put in place for UK airlines operations in the USA and elsewhere. That is judged a responsible and prudent step at the present time, but the continuing need for those measures will be kept under review. Sky marshals will be deployed where appropriate. It is the Government's policy, for obvious security reasons, not to comment in detail on when and where additional security measures are being deployed.

The House will recognise that there is an increased threat and we have to deal with that in a balanced and proportionate way. Our objective is to ensure that we deploy all the security measures available to us, as and when appropriate, while at the same time enabling people to go about their day-to-day business.

Mrs. May

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. It is indeed an important issue that cannot and should not be taken lightly. Of course, airline passengers want to know when they board a plane that every effort has been made to ensure the safety of that flight. However, over the past 10 days a somewhat confusing picture has emerged of the approach being taken by the Government. We were told in headlines last week that sky marshals would be flying on planes to the USA that day or the next day, and that they had been in training for some months. It then emerged that the Government had not discussed the matter properly with the airlines or the pilots, and that it was not clear under what circumstances sky marshals would be used or whether the pilot would continue to have ultimate responsibility for the flight concerned. In the past few days, the suggestion has emerged that the Government's decision was taken only because of pressure from the United States Government.

We all understand that this issue touches on security matters and the use of intelligence, and that the Secretary of State is limited in some of the remarks that he can make to the House. But people who travel on UK airlines, both staff and passengers, deserve to know as much as possible in order to reassure them about the safety of those flights. The confusion that has emerged in the past few days has not helped passengers, and continuing confusion could impact on people's propensity to fly. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain now to the House why talks were not held with pilots and airlines to agree operating procedures before the announcement on the use of sky marshals was made?

Lack of consultation meant that the Secretary of State had to announce on the "Today" programme that pilots would be told about sky marshals on their planes. Will the pilot of any plane continue to have ultimate responsibility for the flight, and will that include refusing to fly if they are not happy with the presence of a sky marshal on the plane? One of the main concerns raised by pilots and by some members of the public has been the use of guns on board planes. What comfort can the Secretary of State give on this matter, and particularly on the type of ammunition to be used?

It is reported today that the Metropolitan police has provided 20 officers for training. How many have completed their training, and how long did it last? What is the limit of sky marshals' actions? If there is a non-terrorist-related incident on a plane, will the sky marshal be expected to get involved, or not? It is also reported today that Toby Harris, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, has raised the question of liability. Can the Secretary of State confirm that no responsibility for liability will fall on the Metropolitan Police Authority, or on any other authority that provides officers as sky marshals? We all want to ensure the safety and security of all those who use planes, both staff and passengers, but it is imperative that the use of sky marshals does not lead to a reduction in security measures on the ground. In a sense, the sky marshal is the last resort—it is better to ensure that a terrorist does not get on the plane in the first place.

Underlying this whole issue over the past few days has been the question of trust in the Government. On the one hand, the Government would have us believe that the use of sky marshals is the result of a well-prepared and thought-through plan, but how can people trust such an assurance when they see the Government failing to consult properly on the proposal and failing to have the answers to a number of real, practical questions? If, on the other hand, the Government have put this proposal in place and have been forced into accepting sky marshals earlier than intended as a result of the actions of the United States Administration, they should be honest with people about that. The travelling public deserve no less.

Mr. Darling

It would be much more preferable if we could deal with this matter on a bipartisan basis because, as the hon. Lady rightly recognises, a great deal rides on it. I should make it clear that the first line of defence is to ensure that the security at airports and surrounding aircraft is as tight as it possibly can be. In the past few days, I have made the point time and again that we have tightened security at all UK airports; indeed, many passengers checking in will have noticed that there have been delays from time to time. Unfortunately, that is a result of increased security—screening individual passengers and baggage, and other measures. The deployment of sky marshals can be only one part of a raft of measures that we have put in place to try to prevent the possibility of somebody getting on an aeroplane and then being in a position to try to take it over.

We announced our intention to train and, if necessary, deploy sky marshals in December 2002. That has therefore been the Government's policy for more than a year before the announcement that the Home Secretary and I made on 28 December, so the idea that the policy was developed at short notice is simply not true.

The hon. Lady asked about consultation. Over the past year we have had many discussions with the aviation industry, including the airline pilots union. It has always been made clear that, for perfectly obvious reasons, the pilot would remain in charge of the aircraft.

As to the information made available, the Government will continue to keep people informed as much as they possibly can. However, the hon. Lady recognises that inevitably it is neither possible nor right for the Government to provide a running commentary on everything that is happening at a particular time. Neither can the Government allow themselves to provide information that might disclose to the very people about whom we are concerned not only what we do know, but what we possibly do not yet know. I therefore hope that she will understand that the Government will not be able to answer some of the questions that she asks now or in the future.

The hon. Lady is right that the Government intend to keep people informed. That is why the Home Secretary and I made our announcement at the end of December—because of the heightened security in the United States and, indeed, other parts of the world. We shall put in place every measure we can to ensure that the safety of aircraft in this country is as high as it possibly can be. We will continue to do that. Unfortunately, as I have said before, it is likely that this state of alert is likely to last for some considerable time. I am afraid that it is a fact of life and a consequence of the age in which we live. We will continue to be vigilant and to do whatever is necessary. We will also, of course, continue to keep the House informed.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

Does the Secretary of State accept—I am sure that he will—that concern for the safety of air passengers is shared on both sides of the House and that any measure to counter terrorism should be given serious consideration? Does he also accept that the effort to prevent terrorist acts on aeroplanes should—and, indeed, must—remain primarily focused on ground security? I would be grateful if he would reiterate that commitment.

Does the Secretary of State accept that BALPA is quite right to be extremely concerned about the potential risk of introducing weapons on to planes? If the Government—or the United States—insist that sky marshals should be deployed, will he ensure that protocols are agreed between airlines and pilots to make it clear that the captain remains in control and in command at all times, as well as being fully apprised at all times about what is happening on his aircraft? Protocols should also ensure that only fully trained police officers would be used in the role, which should help to reassure passengers that the matter is being dealt with in a professional manner.

Mr. Darling

First, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that ground security is paramount both here and in other parts of the world. Furthermore, sky marshals will be deployed only when we believe, on the basis of available evidence, that it is justified. It represents only one part of a wide range of measures that are available to us.

Of course the sky marshals will be highly trained. They are already highly trained and will be trained further for specific operations on aircraft. I fully understand the reluctance of pilots and the concern of others about the deployment of such people on aircraft. However, one thing infinitely worse than having a sky marshal on a plane is having a terrorist on the plane who is about to enter the cockpit. Many people recognise that in certain circumstances, based on available intelligence, it may be necessary to deploy sky marshals.

I note that the general secretary of the airline pilots union said on television this morning that it no longer objected to the deployment of sky marshals, but remains concerned about protocols to ensure that the captain will remain fully in charge. I have made it absolutely clear on several occasions that that is the case. The House may be interested to know—there has been discussion in the newspapers—that British Airways has written to me to confirm that it does not object to the deployment of sky marshals where appropriate. Its concern is exactly the same as that of the rest of us—to ensure that we have an appropriate level of security on aircraft. That is what we shall do.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

The intensive effort made by the Government over the past few years in respect of perimeter security at airports, especially at Heathrow, has been widely acknowledged. The Government should be congratulated on that, but it is regrettable that we are not tackling the issue on a cross-party basis. There is a divergence of views about the role of air marshals, but it is accepted that they can play a role as part of an integrated system. Will my right hon. Friend meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament with aviation interests to explain the role of air marshals in that integrated system? Such a meeting would allow us to discuss in more detail some other issues in connection with perimeter security, especially at airports in the developing world. What steps are the Government taking to give countries in the developing world further support and assistance in this matter?

Mr. Darling

Of course I am happy to meet colleagues, to keep them informed and to explain what the Government are doing. I am grateful for the welcome that my hon. Friend has given to the Government's efforts. Inevitably, one consequence of our inability to provide what might be called a running commentary on what is going on is that the field is left open for all sorts of speculation. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises that the Government are taking the necessary and appropriate action. We will continue to do so.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

I commend the general substance of the Secretary of State's remarks, but why cannot he declare war on jargon as well as on terrorism? Why must the people involved be called sky marshals? Why cannot we use the English language properly and call them armed guards or security guards?

Mr. Darling

I have some sympathy with that proposition, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on these matters, used the term "sky marshals", so, to be helpful to her, I shall explain what they really are. They are, in fact, police officers.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) (Lab)

Will the deployment of air marshals be restricted to the US, or will their deployment be widened to include domestic and European air traffic? If so, I suggest that that would pose a security problem in this country. Also, who will pay for the air marshals?

Mr. Darling

As I have just explained to the House, the Government look at intelligence several times every day. The measures—such as sky marshals or increased security—that we deploy will vary from time to time and from place to place. However, I repeat what I have made clear in the past: the Government will not comment on where, if, or when sky marshals are to be deployed. I hope that the House will understand that. I can tell my hon. Friend that the costs of the sky marshals will be met by the Government.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State say whether these armed guards have been deployed yet, or does their deployment lie in the future? Given that the policy has been under discussion for more than 12 months, will he say why the protocols have not yet been agreed?

Mr. Darling

On the latter point, I told the House a few moments ago that there have been considerable discussions with the airline industry over the past year. On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first point, I have nothing to add to what I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). For perfectly obvious reasons, which I hope the House will understand, we will not explain what action we intend to take or when we intend to take it. The reason is that to do so would provide the sort of information that might be of great help to the very people about whom we are concerned.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

I, too, am disappointed that there is no bipartisan approach to this matter, as I expected there to be widespread support for measures that would increase security on the ground and in cockpits and improve security for passengers. However, my specific concern is whether the sky marshals will be armed. Most members of the public would welcome the presence of police officers when that is justified by intelligence, but does my right hon. Friend understand the concern felt by pilots and the public that the inclusion of the use of guns in the remit given to sky marshals will result in an increased risk that air travel will be turned into a wild west in the sky, rather than in greater security for the air-travelling public?

Mr. Darling

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on that point. The police officers in question will be armed and will act as the last line of defence if someone tries to take over an aircraft. That is an extremely serious situation and that is why the police officers will be armed. My hon. Friend made a similar point to that made by the hon. Member for Maidenhead, but it is worth bearing it in mind that at the moment all flights are operating as usual. Even when the decision had to be taken to ground flights to Washington and the middle east, the vast majority of flights went ahead as normal. All the evidence shows, as we discussed when I published the White Paper on aviation, that people are continuing to fly. It is important that we all send the message that although we live in a time of heightened security and we need to take exceptional action on occasion, people can go about their daily business and continue to fly when they need to do so.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

Will the Secretary of State ensure that we develop international protocols for the deployment of armed police officers on aircraft? Does he agree that sky marshals on incoming flights should always be public servants—police officers or the equivalent—and that private security guards should not be armed on flights? That could have security implications, and it would be better to ensure that only trained police officers play that role.

Mr. Darling

We have some experience of that. The hon. Gentleman is right—we want to ensure that those who act as covert police officers are highly trained, and we will continue to ensure that they are.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that since 1997 one of my constituents has been trying to bring to the Government's attention—in private—some serious defects in the baggage screening process. For obvious reasons, I shall not highlight those defects. Would my right hon. Friend be prepared to meet my constituent to talk about those issues? If a passenger does not wish to travel on a plane with a sky marshal, would he lose the fare for that flight or would other flights be made available?

Mr. Darling

I recall the correspondence that my hon. Friend mentions, but my recollection is that we did not come to the same conclusion as his constituent. I or one of my colleagues will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about the matter. As I said earlier, it would not be a good idea to make a general announcement. The decision to deploy a sky marshal, or put any other security measure in place, is not taken lightly. It is made only when the circumstances justify it, and we cannot make specific announcements because that would play into the hands of those about whom we are concerned. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand and accept that the Government are doing everything that they reasonably can. Most people seem to accept such measures as a fact of life that we will have to live with for some time and that at times there is a limit to what the Government or an airline can say about security measures.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Will the Secretary of State accept from me that the public will on the whole be reassured by his statement? Can he intensify the professional discussions that his Department has had with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the European Civil Aviation Conference, the Civil Aviation Authority and BALPA, so that we get the best professional advice available on a matter that profoundly divides the aviation community? Has he taken a view on the merits or otherwise of arming flight deck air crew?

Mr. Darling

No, I have not taken a view on the hon. Gentleman's latter point, but I am grateful to him for his general welcome for my announcement. Most hon. Members appear to welcome it, although it was not entirely clear what view the hon. Member for Maidenhead was taking. On his other point, the Department keeps in touch with international bodies constantly on the issue.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an interesting sign of the times that Labour Members are putting public safety at the top of the agenda, but the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is putting the capricious claims of a trade union at the top of her agenda? When it comes to legitimate concerns and anxieties, may I take it that the Government have looked closely at the experience of other countries that have been forced to adopt such security measures for some time?

Mr. Darling

Yes, the Government follow closely what is happening in other parts of the world and keep all such matters under review. I understand the concerns of the pilots and I believe that they can be met. Most people—including the pilots' representative on the BBC this morning—accept that the age in which we live means that measures must be taken, unfortunately, that might have been ruled out of hand a few years ago. The Government's job is to ensure that we use every possible means to stop people who should not get on to an aircraft doing so, and also—where necessary and based on the intelligence we have—to deploy other measures. Most people who fly will be reassured by the fact that the Government are keeping such matters under review and will take whatever steps are appropriate.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

Was the Secretary of State as surprised as I was by the suggestion by a representative of the pilots that if a sky marshal is on a plane the pilot should know his identity and where he is sitting? Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that any protocol agreed makes it clear that pilots will never know the identity and location of sky marshals? Otherwise, the first thing that a terrorist would do would be to threaten the pilot with death unless he disclosed the whereabouts of the sky marshal.

Mr. Darling

That sounds to me like one of those matters in which it would be best for me to note what the hon. Gentleman says.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

If callers to radio phone-in programmes are any measure of the success of a Government policy—usually not—I can tell my right hon. Friend that the overwhelming majority of callers and e-mailers to the Lesley Riddoch programme on Radio Scotland yesterday, on which I spoke about sky marshals, favoured the presence of armed sky marshals on flights. Does not the presence of armed sky marshals on Qantas flights out of Sydney to Singapore demonstrate that it is a global response to an international terrorist threat and not, as some have claimed, the British Government caving in to American pressure? That myth is peddled by the same people who present the USA as a greater threat than the international terrorists.

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right that all countries and airlines face this threat. How we respond depends on the individual circumstances and the intelligence that Governments receive.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con)

Having suggested this proposal to the former Home Secretary more than two years ago, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, although it is disappointing that the protocols are not in place. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was trying to make. [Laughter.] If hon. Members listened, they might understand. Attention is currently focused on outbound flights, but I reiterate the importance of ensuring the same level of security on inbound flights. If sky marshals are on an outbound flight, are they likely to be deployed on the return flight?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying what the hon. Member for Maidenhead meant to ask. The decision to deploy armed police officers on a flight depends on the intelligence and the assessment of the threat that we make. As I have said, it would be wiser not to go into details about when and where such people may be deployed.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

The TUC and British trade unions have always been loyal and reliable allies of any British Government at times of war, and that also applies to the war on terrorism. The airline pilots union is a well-informed, reliable and efficient union. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that it will have full and direct access to him and his Department in the coming months, so that it can continue to provide its expertise and advice on this issue?

Mr. Darling

I am meeting the airline pilots union this afternoon, so it will have all the access that it wants.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

Just for the record, the British Airline Pilots Association is an association not a union. Although the association has said that guns and pressurised cabins do not mix, does the Secretary of State agree that in at least two instances, once with El Al and once with Royal Jordanian Airlines, sky marshals have been used to prevent a hijack? Is not it also the case that with the use of high-technology, low-velocity guns, sadly and occasionally a pressurised cabin would be depressurised if an event were to occur?

Mr. Darling

Police officers are trained to operate on aircraft and part of that training means that they have to take into account the difficult conditions they find. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the correction in his first point; no doubt, the pilots themselves would be the first to point out that they are members of an association, not a union.