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Air Travel Security

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on plans to improve security (a) at airports and (b) on board aircraft. [112568]

The UK has a mature national aviation security programme. None the less, security measures both at airports and aboard aircraft are kept under review at all times, and are adjusted as necessary in the light of changing circumstances. Longer-term studies and research are also in hand. We do not, of course, discuss the specifics of security measures.

The Department is in regular contact with its overseas counterparts to share best practice in aviation security.

Does the Minister share the concern felt by a constituent of mine who, having arrived at Manchester airport on a late-night international flight the other week, discovered that no Customs or immigration officers were on duty? He was told by a member of the airport staff that they "did not bother after midnight." Does the Minister agree that it is a great shame when there is a difference between what is said at the Dispatch Box and the reality? Does this not constitute a major loophole in the security system operating on flights?

We will certainly look into the matter, but it would have been helpful if the hon. Gentleman had drawn it to my attention before, in which case I could have given a more detailed response. We undoubtedly have among the best aviation security policies and security practice in the world, but there are of course lapses. We follow them up to improve on that practice, and to ensure the safety of passengers and of those who work for the airlines.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that BAA has made a strong representation that the consultation report considerably overstates the cost of developing Glasgow airport, and has prejudiced the case re developing Edinburgh airport. Will he therefore give us an assurance that the cost of developing both Glasgow and Edinburgh will be fully reviewed in the light of the representations made, and that the findings will be published to enable a proper assessment of this matter to be made.

We are taking this consultation extremely seriously, and we welcome representations about general policy, and from those who believe that there are problems or difficulties with, or inaccuracies in, the underlying assumptions. So if such representations are being made by Glasgow—and by local authorities in, and parliamentary representatives from, the Glasgow area—we will certainly look into the matter. And of course, when we publish the aviation White Paper we will respond in detail to many of those issues.

Mindful of my interests in this field, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what airline passengers want is not just a fair deal for everyone, but safe travel? Can he tell us about the progress that has been made since he made the following comment in the Standing Committee on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill? He said:

"We are considering proposals that would ensure that pass holders for restricted zones are required to have criminal records checks."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 11 March 2003; c. 567.]
Can he also clarify where responsibility for coordination and strategic direction lies outside of the Department for Transport—an issue identified by the Wheeler report?

The requirement for criminal records checks for working airside will come into effect in July. Obviously, the outcome of such checks should be proportionate and relevant to aviation safety, and such a requirement has existed for some time. As a result of discussions with work force representatives, the necessity for them has been agreed to in principle, and the details worked out to general satisfaction, although one or two final issues will need to be resolved. That indicates the seriousness with which we are taking this issue—a seriousness that is part of our incremental progress throughout aviation security. For unfortunate historical reasons, we have had to be well in advance of the rest of the world in this field, and we intend to maintain our position.

May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the safety of passengers at Heathrow airport is in great danger, given the length of time that they have to stand at security? I have made representations about that fact, and it is clear that many vacancies have yet to be filled; indeed, Heathrow security is more than 300 people short. This is a scandal of the first order and it requires the Minister's attention. What does he intend to do to improve the situation at BAA? I understand that it is a private company, but it is the public who are having the greatest difficulty in putting up with the current situation. I understand and appreciate that there are new security rules, but BAA is not addressing them as it should.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is particularly frustrating for passengers waiting in queues to see many scanning machines not in operation because of staff shortages. As my hon. Friend may imagine, the Secretary of State has already vigorously drawn this issue to the attention of BAA. He is awaiting a report from BAA on how it intends to remedy this situation in the short term, and in respect of the longer-term deficiencies, in order to ensure that passengers get the service that they require. Of course, this situation is also detrimental to the airline industry and to punctuality. It is a matter of concern to us, and we are pursuing it with considerable vigour.