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Aviation Security

Volume 884: debated on Monday 13 January 1975

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The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade
(Mr. Peter Shore)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on aviation security following the hijacking of a British Airways BAC 111 last Tuesday.

The events of last Tuesday have been widely reported and we shall be studying them closely. A man has been charged, and as the case is sub judice the House will appreciate that it would not be right for me to go into details at this stage. But I am sure the House will join with me in congratulating the police and British Airways on their efficient handling and the successful conclusion of this unfortunate affair.

I should also like to express my appreciation to Captain Lea and his crew for their conduct throughout their ordeal.

At the time of this incident all airlines had been requested to undertake, and had implemented, a full search of passengers and hand baggage on all international scheduled flights and flights to Northern Ireland, and a random check covering at least half the domestic flights.

I have now asked airlines to institute full searching of passengers and hand baggage on all domestic, as well as international, scheduled flights.

The conduct of the operation has, I think, shown the value of the recent designation of Heathrow Airport under the Policing of Airports Act 1974, under which responsibility for security at the airport was taken over by the Metropolitan Police.

It has already been decided that Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick should also be designated, and I have now called for an examination of the possibility of designating further airports.

The review of our security arrangements for British aircraft, particularly at overseas airports, which I called for on the occasion of the hijacking at Dubai in November, is now nearly complete. However, without waiting for its full results, we have already initiated useful consultations with foreign Governments about protective measures accorded to aircraft of British airlines on the ground. I shall be reporting to the House again in due course.

The House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement on hijacking and joins him in expressing appreciation to the police, British Airways and the captain and his crew. Given that prevention is better than cure, does he now agree that it was a mistake for the Government not to accept the Opposition's amendments to the Policing of Airports Bill which would have instituted checks at provincial airports some time ago? Are there any public airports now without 100 per cent. checks, and, if so, how many?

Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman this further question, because the implications are important: are we to understand that it is now Government policy for Ministers to accept direct responsibility for the reaction to any hijacking? Finally, will he accept that a single hijacker is significantly different from an organised group? Although we are all very glad that no lives were lost in this instance, does he not agree that there is no room for complacency either in Government or of the kind we saw in some television interviews during the incident? Will he give an assurance that he will do everything possible to disperse any such complacency?

Certainly. I do not believe there is any justification for complacency. There are inherent difficulties in the whole matter. The House will appreciate that it is not only in the United Kingdom that attacks are made on aircraft when hijacking takes place. Indeed, we have been dealing with the first hijacking that has occurred inside the United Kingdom. To reply to the first question put by the hon. Gentleman, I think it is true that it was the general belief that a 50 per cent. random check on domestic scheduled flights would be a sufficient deterrent. Clearly, that was wrong because in the event this hijacking took place. Speaking for myself, I accept the view that it would have been better had I agreed to 100 per cent. checks on all domestic flights at an earlier date. I would only say that we have reacted promptly to the first hijacking that has taken place in Britain and we now have a full check on all domestic flights.

On the question of airport security, we are extending it as rapidly as possible under the designation procedure and there is a continuing check by security officials in my Department, sometimes helped by the Ministry of Defence, in discussing with local airport authorities any problems that may arise.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there is a clear distinction between a one-off hijacker and an organised group of terrorist hijackers, but it does not always become clear what one is dealing with until one is well into the affair.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that under the previous Conservative Government and the present Government there has been considerable complacency about the vulnerability of provincial airports and domestic flights? Will he take steps to ensure the centralised control of policing of these airports in liaison with the airlines using them? In view of what happened on this occasion, will he further ensure that in future procedures will be discussed between ground control and crew in advance to provide mutual understanding in the case of an emergency, so as to avoid the kind of friction and misunderstanding which can otherwise develop?

There is indeed consultation between the authorities in charge of security and British Airways. I agree, however, that there is a very good case for strengthening the liaison so that as far as possible in advance those who might be engaged in countering a hijacking are fully briefed as to the part that each will play or may be asked to play. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) has taken a great interest in security matters, particularly at Manchester Airport, and I believe he raised this question during the time of the Conservative Government. I assure him that we will do our utmost to bring about an effective liaison between all those concerned with aviation safety, and this matter and others are already being discussed this week in the National Aviation Security Committee.

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that as he tightens security at major and minor provincial airports there will still remain the small airports, such as Lydd in my constituency, which have international flights, although they encompass journeys of only 20 or so miles? Will he satisfy himself that similar security arrangements apply to the smaller airports?

There is a problem with the smaller airports, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be giving careful consideration to what can be done to improve security there.

Does not the Secretary of State consider it regrettable, and indeed reprehensible, that the Government, the Press and the police allowed the impression to hang around for two days that the hijacker was an Arab when it was known throughout the incident that he was not?

I do not think any of us willingly gave the impression that the hijacker was an Arab. It appeared to us that he was somebody of Middle Eastern origin. All I can say is that as soon as the facts were established the proper information as to the origin of the arrested man was made known.

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his readiness to accept that it might have been wiser to have gone in for more security at domestic airports? I find it encouraging that he has taken that attitude. May I urge upon him the greatest haste in designating the other airfields which he has already mentioned, and, in particular, may I ask him to try to put some life into the Scottish Office, which has been dilatory about its airfields?

Finally, I find little to criticise and much to praise in the way that the affair was handled. I think that nothing has happened in the last few days, certainly as far as Ministers or those in charge of security are concerned, which should give any hijacker, whether organised or disorganised, any encouragement to attempt another such incident.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, particularly because we know that he is very close to what is going on in our air services and at our major airports.

We will indeed make all due haste in carrying out the programme of designation of airports that we have already announced, but there are certain practical problems that have first to be overcome in handing over airport control from existing authorities to the kind of police control that we now have at Heathrow. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no unnecessary delay.

As for the security and possible designation of airports in addition to those I have already listed, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Home Secretary and I shall be discussing that.

As one who was meticulously searched this morning, as indeed was every other passenger, might I ask that the searchers, who were very courteous, be allowed the same kind of discretion as is allowed to our good customs officers? It is ludicrous often to see at Edinburgh Airport elderly grandmothers being searched, and others besides those.

My hon. Friend will readily accept, I think, that the trouble is that we are not always sure that a grandmother is a grandmother. I assure my hon. Friend that I made a visit on Friday to a number of provincial airports and I spoke to passengers on domestic scheduled flights who were queuing up in inevitably hastily contrived checking arrangements. I asked them what they thought about it. There seemed to be no hesitation on the part of the people to whom I spoke that there should be a thorough 100 per cent. check, and they were willing to put up with the inconvenience that went with it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the people of this country, and particularly those in my Constituency of Uxbridge, are deeply grateful for the successful rĂ´le played in this episode by the Metropolitan Police? However, is he aware, further, that the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in the London borough of Hillingdon is well under strength? Will he therefore consult urgently with his right hon. Friend with a view to bringing it up to strength so that future episodes of this kind can be dealt with as efficiently as this one?

I think that we are all grateful to the Metropolitan Police for their handling of this affair. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the question raised about the strength of the police is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I should like to pay tribute to Captain Lea, who is one of my constituents, for his very cool handling of this affair. May I suggest to the Secretary of State that the operation went off better than it might have done? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will answer the question first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) about the ultimate responsibility in a hijacking situation in the United Kingdom? Does that responsibility lie with the captain of the aircraft or with higher authority?

There cannot be a simple answer to what might appear to be a very simple question. I think the reason for that arises out of the whole nature of the situation in which hijackings occur. As I understand it, the captain of an aircraft is in charge of that aircraft, and will always be so. However, the captain's command of the aircraft, certainly while it is on the ground, is something that in any event he can exercise only with the co-operation of massive and sophisticated services, from refuelling to air control, and so on. It is impossible, as it were, to deal with that question simply. However, obviously there has to be, and there must be, a dialogue between the Metropolitan Police, who are in control of Heathrow, and the captain of the aircraft who is affected, and out of that dialogue the best decisions, or best decisions possible, will, we hope, continue to be reached.