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Heathrow (Security Delays)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2007

It is paramount that the UK’s aviation security regime is properly enforced. It is also clearly important that passengers are not unnecessarily inconvenienced by security measures. At Heathrow, as at all other airports, the Government are working closely with the industry to ensure that both objectives are fully considered.

Given that we have seen another summer of long queues, and that the Airport Operators Association says that the queues are too long, too intrusive and that good will has been lost on the part of passengers, does the Minister accept that it is now time for some sense and proportionality? By my nail scissors, there are none at the moment.

I am delighted that the right hon. Lady is in her place asking questions; I am only disappointed that she has already declared her intention not to stand at the next general election. The whole House would agree that we will be the poorer for that.

The right hon. Lady referred to delays in security queues at Heathrow, but I make no apology for the fact that we need robust security measures to counter a real and serious security threat. I accept, of course, that at times there are delays and inconvenience for passengers, but we should bear in mind the facts: despite some of the news coverage, queues in central search areas are routinely running at less than 10 minutes for 95 per cent. of the time. However, if we can make sure that a robust security regime remains in place, I am determined that we should make progress on the issue. That is why earlier this year, in the summer, I convened an airline and airport operators security summit and why we have set up a working group to see what improvements can be made.

I have been going through Heathrow and Gatwick a few times in recent months on my journeys to Europe. On the way out, I have never had to wait more than 10 minutes between check-in and buying a book in Borders. On the other hand, on the way back there have been intolerable third-world queues at immigration. That is not my right hon. Friend’s responsibility, but will she have a word with the Home Office? Seeing the businessmen of the world queuing up to enter Britain, as if they were in some third-world country, is shaming and not a good advertisement for a modern UK.

My right hon. Friend is a seasoned traveller and well used to dealing with some of the inconvenience that there clearly is for passengers at Heathrow. As he says, such matters are rightly for the Home Secretary, who takes a close interest in border control. I understand that there are more front-line border officers than ever before; their being there doing that important job is preventing thousands of illegal immigrants from entering the UK every year. The Home Secretary keeps such issues under review and will take action if that is required.

Does the Secretary of State accept that robust security is one thing—we all support that—but unintelligent security brings security into disrepute? Will she look again at some of the knee-jerk regulations brought in last year in the wake of the scare? I do not want my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to lose any more nail scissors.

Despite my respect for the hon. Gentleman, I do not recognise his characterisation of the situation at all. The one-bag rule was introduced for extremely good reasons—there was a serious, real and ongoing threat to our national security. The UK restriction was intended to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. There was a clear choice: introduce the one-bag rule or stop planes flying altogether.

We keep such issues constantly under review, of course. I am absolutely clear that if we can make progress, we should; I am determined to work with the industry to see what alternatives are possible. However, let me be clear to the House: before sanctioning any change, I will have to be satisfied that it would not have an adverse impact on security.

Like me, Mr. Speaker, you are a regular traveller on planes, as you come from Scotland on a weekly basis. The experiences of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) are nothing like ours; we have to wait for up to three quarters of an hour to go through security at Heathrow. It is a joke. It is down to the inconsistencies; we have to deal daily with bad management at that airport. However, I have an answer for you, Mr. Speaker. You should use London City airport, where security is far better, airline services are of a far higher standard and people do not lose their bags as they do at Heathrow every time they travel.

I certainly sympathise with my hon. Friend, but we need to be clear about the fundamentals of what is happening at Heathrow, which is the world’s busiest and most congested international airport and is operating way beyond its capacity. For example, I understand that its runways are operating at about 98.5 per cent. capacity, which reduces resilience and leads to delay.

As a Government, we have a clear response to that—we need to build more capacity. In the short term, terminal 5 is coming on stream, and in the medium term there will be the new terminal to replace terminals 1 and 2. In the longer term, the Government’s policy is that we need new runway capacity at Heathrow—consistent, of course, with local and environmental constraints, as set out in the 2003 White Paper. I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) says about that.

I think the Secretary of State’s answers show that she has spent too much time in the VIP lounge and not enough time with real passengers. The CBI has warned that Heathrow hassle is an increasing threat to inward investment in the UK. Chicago Tribune readers voted the airport the worst in the world, and anyone who has travelled knows what a deeply unpleasant experience it can be. When is the Secretary of State going to start knocking heads together to get something done to improve the quality of service at an airport that is rapidly becoming a national embarrassment? We think that passengers deserve better.

Actually, I think that passengers deserve better. That is why the Government have the very clear policy position that if the local environmental conditions are met we should have a third runway, which would preserve Heathrow’s place as a premier international airport. The hon. Lady, however, seems to be torn from pillar to post. On the one hand, she is being advised by her one of her right hon. Friends that yes, we need more capacity at Heathrow; on the other, she is being advised by another right hon. Friend that we do not need any increase in capacity at all. Which will she do?

The Secretary of State cannot wash her hands of responsibility for the state of Heathrow today. The Government are part of the problem, when they should be part of the solution. Why do they think that 45-minute waiting times at immigration are acceptable? Do they not recognise that long queues are in themselves targets and security risks? Will they admit that their one-bag rule, which the Secretary of State defended again today, is not in place to preserve safety but because of inefficiency? Why do we have to put up with the one-bag rule in this country when no other country in the world does?

There is a very clear answer to this: we have a more serious threat than other European countries do. The EU sets minimum standards which we have decided to exceed in order to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. That is for very serious reasons: we want to protect the public. If the hon. Lady is saying that I should lift the one-bag rule without regard to the security consequences, that is a totally irresponsible position. Of course we need to do better, and we keep these issues under review. Earlier in the summer, I convened a summit with the airport and airline operators. We have set up a working group to examine what progress can be made. I am optimistic that we will shortly be in a position to make progress, but first and foremost must be the security requirements of people in this country.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that part of the reason for long queues at Heathrow and throughout UK airports is the personal searches that take place of passengers by security staff, which are, I have to say, particularly intimate and intrusive. Will she work with the airport authorities to find some form of technology that could also be used in other countries to make these searches less intrusive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the potential of better and more sophisticated technology. Indeed, at Heathrow, as in Glasgow, we are trialling sophisticated security screening technology and more sophisticated X-ray technology that may reduce the need for some of the intimate hand searches and may also lead us to a situation in which we can consider changing the restrictions that are currently in place. However, as I have already said, the first priority must be preserving and maintaining the security of the travelling public. Provided that we do that, I clearly want to make progress to improve the passenger experience.