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Drones (Safety Risks)

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 28 April 2016

1. What recent assessment he has made of potential safety risks posed by drones to civil aviation. (904737)

Drones have great potential, but it is important that they are used safely. There are already tough penalties in place for negligent drone use, including up to five years’ imprisonment for endangering an aircraft. The Department continues to work with the British Airline Pilots Association and the Civil Aviation Authority to assess the safety risks of drones.

Should not the Government heed the warning of Heathrow and, instead of taking their rather complacent position, realise not only the potential for catastrophes as a result of vandals or careless people using drones, but the dreadful possibility of terrorists using drones against stores of flammable material or nuclear power stations? Already, drones are being used to take mobile phones and drugs into Wandsworth prison. Should not the Government wake up and realise that this new menace is a potential great threat, and take precautions to reduce universal access to drones?

There is no complacency whatever from the Government on the use of drones. As I have said, there is a prison sentence available, and obviously I will keep the situation under review. It is also important to find out the facts behind certain incidents. It is now thought that the incident reported on 17 April was not a drone incident.

Could the Secretary of State update the House on the state of investment in our roads in the north-east, particularly the A1?

No. That is a most interesting matter, but a little distant from the matter of drones. Save it for the long summer evenings that lie ahead.

There are growing concerns about drone incidents that threaten public safety. It is not very clear whether the problem lies with the regulations themselves or with the enforcement of those regulations. Will the Secretary of State look at those issues?

Yes, I certainly will. Earlier this week I met BALPA—the meeting had been planned before the incident on 17 April—to discuss that issue as well as the problems that laser pen use is causing for civil aviation in this country. I will certainly keep those things under review and do further work, along with BALPA, the industry and the CAA, on drones and drone use.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that all regulations and guidance on drones and air safety will apply and be communicated to airports outside London, such as East Midlands airport in my constituency, to ensure that we have a consistent air safety policy across the country?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes a very good point: this is a matter not just for London airports, but for airports outside London and right across the country, which serve very important international connections.

I hear what the Transport Secretary is saying about his engagement with airports, but this is also an issue for stadiums, railway stations and other places where the public gather in huge numbers. What discussions has he had with the widest possible range of stakeholders, including local authorities, on the use of drones?

I have updated the House on the issue addressed by the tabled question, namely aviation. Of course, there are wider issues and the Government keep them consistently under review.

I am grateful for that—even if it was not much of an answer, to be entirely honest. The Secretary of State also briefly touched on another very important issue relating to the threat that laser pens pose to airports across the United Kingdom. BALPA has called for all but the lowest-strength laser pens to be banned. What is his response to that?

As I informed the House a few moments ago, I met BALPA earlier this week. It has come forward with issues about laser pens. There is a bigger problem with laser pens, and much more evidence about the way in which they have been used. It is illegal to shine them in someone’s eyes, and there have been more prosecutions, but I am willing to take further action once we have reached agreement on the best way forward.

Mr Speaker, you may recall that this time last month, I asked the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when, after three years of working groups, we would be told what the Government were going to do about the danger of drones to civil aircraft. His answer, you will recall, left us none the wiser.

This week, things became even vaguer when the Minister appeared to say in a written answer that he is not even going to consult on anything until the European Aviation Safety Agency has decided what to do. That is all happening at a time of reports that drones might have hit a civil aircraft, and of drones being banned over London altogether when President Obama was in town. Other countries have already brought in registration schemes and other initiatives, so when are we going to see some clear proposals from the Government, without having to wait for a US President to come to town?

Part of the point was made by the hon. Gentleman in his question when he said, “it might have been”. Governments do not legislate on what might be; they act on what the dangers are. As I have said, we are in discussions with the airline pilots’ union BALPA, as well as the CAA, about the right way to develop this. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all drones should be banned completely, I should point out that the Labour party never thought about when it was in office.