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Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [Lords]

Volume 640: debated on Monday 30 April 2018

Considered in Committee

[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]

Clauses 1 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Third time.

I would like to express my appreciation to right hon. and hon. Members and noble Lords in the other place for their thoughtful and constructive contributions during the passage of the Bill, including the positive engagement and support of the Opposition. I am indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) for his work in bringing forward the Bill when he was a Minister at the Department for Transport and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) for his insightful contributions based on his experience as Aviation Minister.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we can be proud of the safety culture across our transport sector in recent years, but we cannot be complacent. Safety and security must be our top priority. That is why we introduced the Bill: to strengthen the rules against those who shine lasers at aircraft while also making it an offence to shine a laser at cars, trains and ships for the first time.

I welcome provision for a jail sentence of five years, which will give peace of mind to bus drivers, train drivers, vehicle drivers and aviation pilots, but can the Minister confirm that the Bill will apply to Northern Ireland?

Five years is indeed the maximum sentence and the maximum fine is unlimited. The Bill extends to the entire UK and will come into force in England, Wales and Scotland at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which the Bill is passed. In Northern Ireland, aviation and shipping are reserved, and the provisions relating to those will come into force at the same time as in the rest of the UK.

The Bill is now in a better shape than when it was introduced. In particular, the creation of an offence for shining a laser at air traffic control has received widespread endorsement and is one that the Government are happy to support. The Bill has been a great example of the important role Parliament has in strengthening legislation. I also thank those outside the Chamber who have lent their expertise to this important Bill. The UK Laser Working Group, chaired by Air Commodore Dai Whittingham, the Civil Aviation Authority, NATS, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the trade union the British Airline Pilots Association, the national police air service and many others have provided invaluable advice on some very technical issues.

Our work in this area does not stop once the Bill is passed. The Bill specifically covers the risk posed by shining a laser at a person in control of a vehicle, but, as we discussed on Second Reading, the Government have also announced new measures to tackle the sale of unsafe laser pointers. More than 150 incidents of eye injuries involving laser pointers have been reported since 2013, the vast majority of them involving children. In many of these cases, neither the children nor their parents have known the danger involved. The Government will work to raise awareness of the risks associated with laser pointers, including among schoolchildren.

In addition, the Government have pledged extra support to local authority ports and border teams to stop high-powered laser pointers entering the UK. On this, I would like to correct the record of what I said on Second Reading. This additional funding will in fact come from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, not the Department for Transport. I would not want to be seen as taking credit for another Department’s work, but it is an example of Departments working closely together with a shared purpose.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) previously asked about timeframes. BEIS has already held an initial meeting with National Trading Standards to begin planning a joint project supporting local authorities. The planning will also include working with colleagues in the devolved Administrations. The Civil Aviation Authority will continue to provide advice and guidance for victims of laser attacks, and we will continue to monitor the issue, working with industry, the regulator and cross-Government colleagues to establish whether further steps need to be taken to tackle this unacceptable behaviour.

It has been clear throughout the passage of the Bill that the issue with which it deals is not politically charged or partisan. Parliament is acting collectively in the interests of the travelling public and those who work in our transport sector, and this Bill is for them.

The Bill has been much improved by the persistence of our Labour colleagues in the other place.

I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in sending condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner). He had been leading for the Opposition on the Bill, but he has just lost his father, the distinguished Hull city councillor Ken Turner. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family today.

As no amendments were tabled, I shall highlight a few points in the Bill itself. It is a short Bill, consisting of two substantive and two procedural clauses. Clause 1 makes it an offence to direct or shine a laser beam towards a vehicle or a person in charge of a vehicle in such a way as to dazzle or distract the person driving, piloting, navigating or otherwise in control of the vehicle when it is moving or is ready to move. It results from an amendment tabled by Labour colleagues in the other place. There may be mitigating circumstances if it can be proved that the use of the laser was necessary in, for example, a rescue mission to attract attention of a pilot, or that the offence was committed by accident if the laser was being used professionally and all precautions had initially been taken to prevent an incident from occurring. The penalty will be imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. Advancing the deterrent sends a clear message that laser misuse will not be tolerated. It has also been clarified that a laser beam could be a pulsed or continuous light, and it is defined in clause 3. The definition of the modes of transport to which the Bill will apply has been extended, thanks to the work of my Labour colleagues in the other place.

The Bill is an important piece of health and safety legislation to safeguard those who operate modes of transport from the effect of laser misuse. Lasers are being used to shine lights into the eyes of drivers, causing, according to the British Airline Pilots Association, four progressive stages of seriousness—distraction, disruption, disorientation and even incapacitation—which may have a sustained impact and could result in fatal consequences for the driver, passengers, the public, or a combination of those people.

The issue of laser misuse was first drawn to the attention of authorities by the aviation industry, but the Bill also covers drivers or navigators in charge of helicopters. A number of incidents have been cited, not least by police helicopter pilots. There have also been incidents involving planes, trains, ships, hovercrafts, submarines and road vehicles. The Bill’s provisions extend to bicycles, motor scooters and horse-drawn carriages, as well as air traffic control.

Labour recognised the need for legislation that would build on the Air Navigation Order 2016, and along with the aviation industry and other transport operators, our Front Benchers have welcomed the Bill. It was our suggestion that such legislation could be introduced in the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. We recognised the insufficient penalties resulting from the 2016 order and the very small number of prosecutions. The Bill will act as a far greater deterrent to laser misuse throughout the transport system. At this point I should mention the collaborative and cross-party work that has been done in both Houses—not least by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who is not present this evening.

The other place amended the Bill to ensure that it was comprehensive in addressing the misuse of lasers, and in particular I thank Lord Tunnicliffe of Bracknell for his contribution. We are also indebted to the UK Laser Working Group, whose expertise has informed this Bill at all stages.

The Bill, while recognising the legitimate use of lasers, will ensure that those in charge of a vehicle are not put at risk, thus putting other transport users at risk, too. In the last year, there have been more than 1,000 cases, a sharp rise over a very short period of time. While that has not led to any accidents to date, in safety-critical industries we will not allow such risks to propagate, which is why we are supporting the Bill on Third Reading today.

The BALPA membership survey stated that half its pilots reported having experienced a laser attack in the last 12 months—55% of pilots, I believe—and that 15% had experienced three or more laser attacks. It is therefore heartening that external stakeholders also support the Bill, and I thank BALPA for its work in this area and all those working in transport who have advocated such legislation.

I can testify to the intensity of light from lasers, as some young people in my constituency shone a laser at me when I was out on an estate last summer. Momentarily blinded, I sought to look away, but that brief experience brought home the dangers of such laser devices, and permanent eye damage can occur if there is exposure to such light.

May I take this opportunity to thank the Clerks for their assistance through the passage of the Bill, my hon. Friends in this place and colleagues in the other place for their participation in the various stages of the Bill, and external stakeholders who have worked with us to ensure that it receives a smooth passage through its final stages?

Clearly, we are disappointed that the Prime Minister called a general election before we had the opportunity to enact the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, but, a year later, I am glad that we have been able to complete the Bill’s passage in this place today. It just goes to show what can be achieved when all parties remain laser-focused on acting in the best interests of the public.

I trust that the public will recognise the importance of the Bill and that this risk across the transport sector will be deterred. There is clearly still a debate to be had about the ownership and use of laser beams, as Public Health England advises, but that will be for another Bill on another day.

I close by thanking all those who work across the transport sector for the application of their skills in keeping the public safe and ensuring that the UK has the highest of standards in transport safety.

As this is a Third Reading debate and there were no amendments on Report, and given that we will support the Bill, I will not speak for long. I do, however, want to put on record my condolences to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner).

The Minister and shadow Minister both commended the work done in the other place in getting this Bill through. It has only two substantive clauses, however, so I am not sure it merits our having 800 unelected peers in the other place—which is not to say that the Bill does not have its merits.

The Civil Aviation Authority records that more than 11,000 laser pen incidents were reported at airports over an eight-year period and a BALPA survey has confirmed that half its pilots have experienced a laser pen attack in the past 12 months and 15% have experienced at least three attacks or more, which is alarming. Legislation is clearly needed to provide a deterrent, therefore, and this Bill does that. I therefore welcome the Bill, and we should move forward and get it into legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.