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Aviation Security

Volume 601: debated on Thursday 5 November 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government’s recent decisions following the loss of the Russian Metrojet flight on Saturday.

I know that the House will wish to join with me in expressing condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. A total of 224 lives were lost. I was able to express our deepest sympathy to the Russian ambassador yesterday, when the Foreign Secretary and I signed the book of condolence.

We still cannot be certain what caused the loss of the aircraft, but we are reaching the view that a bomb on board is a significant possibility. Were that to turn out to be the case, it would clearly have serious implications for the security of UK nationals flying from Sharm el-Sheikh, and we therefore decided that it was necessary to act. Our decisions were based on a review of all of the information that was available to us. Some of that information is sensitive, and I cannot go into the details of it, but the House can be assured that we made that decision on the basis of the safety of British citizens.

There are two stages in this process. We are working with the airlines to introduce short-term measures, which could include different arrangements for handling luggage. Beyond that, we are working with the Egyptians and with airlines to introduce long-term, sustainable measures to ensure that our flights remain safe. We very much hope that it will be possible to declare that it is safe to fly to the resort, and to resume normal flight operations, in due course, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced yesterday evening that the Government were currently advising against all but essential air travel to or from that particular airport. All UK-operated flights to and from the airport have now been suspended. We are working with the Egyptians to assess and, where necessary, improve security at the airport.

More than 900,000 British nationals visit Egypt every year, and most of those visits are trouble-free. As my right hon. Friend said yesterday, we are grateful for the continuing efforts of the Egyptian authorities to work with us on these vital tasks. The Government are working with the airline community to establish interim arrangements for getting people home. This is clearly a very difficult situation for travellers and their families. I thank the airlines for their support during this difficult time, and I thank holidaymakers for their patience. In parallel, specialist teams will be working intensively with the Egyptian authorities to allow normal scheduled operations to recommence.

The decision to suspend flights is very serious, and was not made lightly. The safety and security of the travelling public is, of course, the Government's highest priority. We will need to be confident that security standards meet our expectations, and those of the public, before we allow services to resume. I recognise this is a stressful time for British tourists, but we have not changed the travel threat level for the resort itself. People should keep in touch with their tour operators. We have consular staff providing assistance on the ground. We also have aviation security experts on the ground, and arrangements will be made to bring people home safely in due course. The airlines are working with us to bring their passengers home, but no UK-bound aircraft will take off until it is safe for it to do so. We do not expect flights to leave today, but we hope that some will leave tomorrow.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. I echo the condolences that he articulated, and I know that those sentiments will be shared by the whole House. Let me also place on record the Opposition’s support for the prompt precautionary action taken by the Government yesterday. There can be no doubt in these circumstances that the safety of British citizens must be the highest priority.

I understand that the Secretary of State is necessarily constrained in respect of the information that he can give the House today, but will he tell us when his colleagues in other Departments will update the House on the matters involved? Given that the Government believe that the Metrojet flight may have been deliberately targeted, will he reassure the House on how he reached the conclusion that there was no threat in the wider Sharm el-Sheikh resort? Will he also update the House on when he expects the security review of Sharm el-Sheikh airport to conclude, and can he give any further information on the possible new long-term measures he referred to in his statement?

It has been reported that up to 20,000 UK citizens and nationals are currently in Sharm el-Sheikh. Do the Government have their own estimate? What consular support are the Government providing to UK citizens and nationals who are currently in Egypt, and will the Secretary of State ensure that consular services remain available outside the resort? What steps is his Department taking to ensure that regular and prompt updates are provided at UK airports and by airlines and tour operators that serve Sharm el-Sheikh?

Given the level of cross-departmental work involved, what arrangements will be put in place to provide individuals with a simple process for seeking official assistance? Will the Secretary of State clarify how Members of this House can most effectively raise their constituents’ cases with the Government?

I thank the hon. Lady for the Opposition’s general support. She is absolutely right that the decision was not taken lightly; it was taken after careful consideration of the details that the Government had received.

The hon. Lady asked about numbers. It is estimated that there are 20,000 in the Sharm el-Sheikh area, but that is not a specific, accurate figure and there will be some people there who are not on package holidays and the like. We have a consul team, which is being expanded, at the airport and available to give the sort of information she wants. Also, obviously, the contact details of the Foreign Office are available to all Members of Parliament.

The hon. Lady asks how we will keep the House updated. I will give further consideration to that. As I said, I hope to see some flights leaving tomorrow, but that will not include people flying out to Sharm el-Sheikh; it will be people being brought back home. We are in discussions with the airlines at this very moment about the implications and the safety measures we will take, and those meetings are ongoing. I will look at ways of keeping her and other colleagues in touch.

Having once had to witness the possibility of my young son’s teddy bear being slit open at airport security, one understands that levels of security can vary according to the perceived level of threat, but should not this terrible tragedy remind us that a common standard of security has to apply across all the airports of the world, so that whoever we are—from whichever country, travelling to or fro—we know what the standard is, what to expect and that it will be applied?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend: in an ideal world, that would be essential. We are of course reviewing security, as far as our security inspectors are concerned, at a number of locations. We will continue to do that, as we have done in the past. That is an important part of our job. I also think it is for other countries to understand that it is in everybody’s interests that we have as much security as is necessary at all the airports around the world.

I thank the Transport Secretary for early sight of his statement, and add to his the condolences of SNP Members.

There have been conflicting reports of the number of tourists affected in Sharm el-Sheikh and the surrounding area and resorts. Can the Transport Secretary confirm the number of people whom he believes are affected? As this is a very concerning time, information will be key, with many people getting their information from websites. Can we get an assurance that the consular assistance on the ground will be providing people with practical support? Finally, many resorts are distant from Sharm el-Sheikh airport; can the Secretary of State confirm that security measures on bus transfers are being considered as well?

I would like to say yes to most of the questions the hon. Gentleman put to me. The Foreign Office has deployed people—and is deploying more today—to the airport and is working with the tour operators as well. I understand what he says about websites, and indeed social media, giving information which can sometimes be misleading; some of the information put out has turned out not to be correct. It is therefore important for people to check with tour operators and Foreign Office officials there. We are working to ensure that everybody can get home when they wish to do so.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I do not believe the British Government had any alternative but to take the action they have taken. However, as he knows, it will affect the economy of Egypt. Does he agree that the enhanced security measures will serve to boost confidence among tourists, tour operators and airlines in the belief that Sharm el-Sheikh is a safe place to go? If we are providing British security advisers to help the Egyptian authorities, may I suggest that the air accidents investigation branch based in Farnborough in my constituency—the finest air accident investigators in the world—help the Russians and the French in their analysis of the wreckage of this aircraft, because all the experience they had with the 747 at Lockerbie would be highly relevant to this investigation?

My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will be meeting the President of Egypt very shortly and will be discussing such issues. I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the expertise in the AAIB. There are set rules for international investigations of aviation accidents, but I will certainly offer any help that the AAIB can give.

This is an horrendous situation and I hope we will be kept informed of future developments. The Secretary of State has taken the correct decisions in these awful circumstances, but can he give us an absolute assurance that he is receiving full co-operation from all the parties involved? Are there any international lessons to draw from international arrangements in order to protect British passengers flying home from abroad?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support. I know that as Chair of the Transport Committee she may wish to return to this subject in due course. We have received excellent co-operation not only across our domestic Government, as she would expect, but from the Egyptian Government, who are dealing with this with the seriousness that it requires.

I welcome the candour and transparency in the statement, so far as the Secretary of State has been able to give it, as well as the actions taken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) pointed out, this has very serious implications for the Egyptian tourism industry, and plainly some of the Egyptian sensitivity relates to the significant potential damage to its interests. Will my right hon. Friend impress on his Egyptian opposite numbers that providing the same candour and transparency in this investigation, rather than dissembling and cover-up, will probably be the quickest way to restore confidence in travelling to Sharm el-Sheikh?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think there is any desire on anybody’s part to dissemble or cover up, because others are also involved in the investigation—the Irish, for instance, because that is where the plane was originally registered. This is not just being investigated by one party; there are much wider investigations.

This is of course the right decision, but it has parallels with what happened in Tunisia, where the advice was that people should not travel there. They are two hugely popular destinations; 1 million British citizens visit Tunisia or Sharm el-Sheikh. As colleagues have said, this will have devastating consequences for the economies of those two countries. It was a Russian plane with Russian citizens and the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned what Russia is doing. This is a big opportunity for Russia, the United States and Great Britain to work together to try to find out what happened and to deal with those responsible.

The right hon. Gentleman makes several good observations. It is the Prime Minister’s intention to speak to President Putin this afternoon—that call is going to take place. The right hon. Gentleman is obviously right to say that people who try to do these things to aircraft put all Governments under a huge amount of stress and pressure, but we have to take the right decisions to protect our citizens.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). Travel and tourism provide 8% of Egypt’s GDP. About 900,000 UK tourists, particularly scuba divers, contribute to that figure, and there are many British companies whose diving businesses are sustained during our winter months by running guided overseas tours around the Red sea. What advice can the Secretary of State give to those companies on alternative routes that they could fly to reach that same destination?

The resort remains open, and we are working as quickly as possible to reassure ourselves about the security at the airport there. When that is done, we will be able to say more.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and I, too, offer my condolences to the families of those who have been killed in this tragedy. I share the concerns of the holidaymakers whose holidays have been ruined by what has happened, and I also share the concerns expressed by hon. Members about the wider implications of this and other aviation incidents. What assessment are the Government making of the risk to flights over the UK, particularly those flying over built-up areas?

Of course we take any threats very seriously indeed, but one of the reasons that we have such high levels of security at British airports is that we know from experience that people have tried to smuggle bombs on to planes.

I thank the Secretary of State for taking this action to ensure the safety of British nationals. Does he agree that Birmingham international airport has a standard of security that we should expect from all international airports across the world?

My hon. Friend never misses a chance to promote her local airport. I would add that that standard applies to airports across the whole of the United Kingdom and to other countries as well. All countries give such security a very high priority, but when we see one failing to reach the high standards that we expect, we must point that out and hope that action will be taken. If no such action is taken, the Government have no alternative but to stop flights going to that destination.

I echo the words of condolence to the Russian families, and the words of solidarity for the British passengers who are stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh. The Financial Times has reported that a UK military team is to be deployed there. Is the Secretary of State able to say whether that team is already in place, whether it is checking all UK-bound planes and whether it will be able to stay there as long as is required to ensure the safety of returning passengers?

We have deployed people from several Departments, not least the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office, so we are not short of the kind of officials and professional advice that are needed in the immediate situation. As I have said, the long-term aim is to re-establish the flights as soon as we possibly can.

I commend the Government for taking this very difficult decision, which has ensured that no British citizen is knowingly placed in danger. I know of many people who have holidays booked in Sharm el-Sheikh and who fully intend to travel there once the flights resume. Will the Secretary of State tell me what the position will be regarding their travel insurance? Will recent events invalidate or alter it in any way?

I would advise those people to talk to their travel agent or tour operator in the first instance. The advice that we have set down is quite clear: we do not believe that any flights from the United Kingdom should go to Sharm el-Sheikh at this stage. That will obviously have implications in regard to certain insurance claims. We are reviewing the advice regularly.

What support, if any, are the Government offering to people in the UK who have family, friends and loved ones stuck in this dreadful crisis?

We are trying to help them, and there are helplines available, including through the tour operators, but our first action must be to help those people who are actually stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh and to get them home. Communications are not down.

Do not these tragic events underline the importance of being able to counter terrorism on the sea, in the air and on land, and the importance of being able to intercept electronic communications in order to keep British citizens safe?

It is a matter of paramount importance for any Government to be able to get information that protects and ensures the safety of British citizens, and that is something that all members of this Government, from the Prime Minister down, take very seriously indeed.

The focus at the moment is rightly on the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh, but now that it is suspected that ISIS is targeting aviation, is the Secretary of State undertaking a review of security at British airports?

We are always reviewing safety at British airports; that does not stop. Indeed, people who use them sometimes complain about the level of intrusiveness in those airports. Of course we keep security under review. As I have said, in this particular case we were not satisfied about the way in which some of the security measures were being carried out.

I commend the Government for putting the safety of British citizens first by stopping flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh after the Russian air incident. What advice is the Secretary of State giving to airports such as Gatwick, in my constituency, and to the air operators that fly to the region from there, such as EasyJet and Thomson, to enable them to give better help to their passengers?

My hon. Friend mentions two airlines, Thomson and EasyJet. When I left the Department for Transport to come here, representatives of both those companies were at the Department going through the arrangements that we need to put into operation. They are being kept very much informed, as they play an important part in what we are doing, and they are being extremely helpful. I should like to place on record my thanks to the airlines for responding so quickly to the situation we found ourselves in yesterday.

I also thank the Secretary of State for his statement. What work will his Department undertake to ensure that the advice given to UK citizens will be fact based? Or does he believe, as has been stated in the media this morning, that a more precautionary approach is required in this instance? Would that signal a shift in the nature of the travel advice given by the FCO?

We do not give any such advice without having due cause to do so. We consider all the different streams of information that we get and feed them into our decision-making process—of that, the hon. Lady can be certain. These decisions are not taken lightly. They worry the people who are in the resorts, and they worry their families who are here, but it is right that we should take them if we feel that it is necessary to do so.

May I associate myself with the sympathy expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? I should also like to thank him and his colleagues for the action that they have taken. He talked earlier about looking for and pointing out cracks in the security at airports around the world, which is extremely important, but will he also commit to working with our friends and allies around the world to ensure that, when we do see those cracks, we take action proactively rather than waiting until these tragic incidents happen before doing anything?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have no doubt about the importance of trade to these countries. I can confirm that we do what he has outlined; we are in constant talks with our ambassadors and the like, as they, in turn, are with the Governments in those countries. If we have concerns, it is right that we flag them up.

The action taken today by the Secretary of State relates only to flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Can he confirm to the House that other airports in Egypt are meeting the standards that we would expect of them? Will he do that if only to reassure the hundreds of thousands of tourists who still want to go there?

The answer to that is yes. Obviously, we are looking at security at all the airports where we have any concerns whatsoever, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the information and the warning from yesterday being specific to one airport. I very much hope that we can work with the Egyptian Government to make sure that the measures that would give us confidence about screening and the like are undertaken and that this advice will be removed as soon as possible.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for immediately coming to the House to explain the situation in great detail. The one thing we can be sure of is that the British travel industry is second to none in response to a crisis like this. It is also true to say that we would not be flying to a country if we were concerned about the security systems there, so this must have been a lapse in the security. People should be reassured by the fact that we would not allow our aircraft to fly into a country where the security was deemed to be poor. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), I would like to thank the travel industry and the airline operators for the way in which they have responded in helping us to work out the solutions that we will be putting in place over the next few days and in the interim and then to look to the longer-term solutions, so that this airport can be regarded again as one where we can remove the current travel advice.

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. He will be aware that holidaymakers from across the UK have been impacted, and he will also be aware of the offer of help and support from Scotland’s First Minister made in the Scottish Parliament today. What measures are being put in place to liaise with the devolved Administrations?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that for the past 24 hours we have been heavily involved in talking to the airlines and doing what we needed to do immediately, especially given that the Egyptian President is in the country. The hon. Gentleman is right about information getting to devolved Ministers, and I am pleased to hear what he says about the Scottish First Minister. I look forward to working with all the devolved Administrations if there are other things that we need to do as far as they are concerned.