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Illegal Drone Use: Airports

Volume 652: debated on Monday 14 January 2019

2. What steps his Department is taking to support civilian authorities to tackle illegal drone use at and around UK airports. (908522)

The Ministry of Defence rapidly deployed counter-unmanned air systems capability in support of Sussex police and the Metropolitan police, both at Gatwick and at Heathrow. We are working with colleagues in the Department for Transport and across the Government, and will continue to do so.

I would like to convey the sincere thanks of the Gatwick management to the Ministry of Defence for its swift action last month during the drone incursion, and I can confirm that they have now bought a very similar system for future use. May I have an assurance that the MOD remains on standby to assist civilian airfields in these situations?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the RAF for its work. It worked incredibly quickly to get to both Gatwick and Heathrow. Of course, our armed forces are always ready to respond, should they need to, but it should be said that responsibility for drone activity at civilian airports lies with the airport operators.

I have today received a parliamentary answer revealing that no Transport Minister visited Gatwick during the drone crisis. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what contingency plans his own Department had for dealing with drones at airports? Will he also tell us on what date the Transport Department—or, indeed, the Cabinet Office—asked the MOD for help and support during the crisis? How did his Department respond, and when?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman in good spirit that he is uniquely talented in delivering an oral question as though it were of the written variety.

I was pleased to go to Heathrow myself just last week—[Hon. Members: “Gatwick.”] I know, but I personally went to Heathrow last week. We responded to the request that we received from Sussex police on 20 December and we have been working with colleagues across the Government, and with the Department for Transport, to ensure that we have all the availability that is needed, and that the airports have the proper advice that they require so that they can get the systems they need to ensure that they can protect their own runways.

The Ministry of Defence is evidently well prepared to respond very quickly to drone threats, once it is asked for assistance, but can the Minister explain the policy whereby installations are not already in place and a crisis has to arise before that assistance is deployed to the airports?

As I was saying, the protection of airports is in fact an issue for those airports. I know that the Department for Transport is working with airfields across the country to ensure that they have the protections they need. The response by the MOD was incredibly swift, and I pay tribute to it for that.

Is it not time that this Government took drones seriously? The fact is that drone technology is advancing very quickly. This is going to be the way in which we wage wars, and the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians are all investing in the technology. Even in our airports, drones present a great danger that we should address immediately.

We are taking this very seriously. The Ministry of Defence has been working on this over the past couple of years, and we are of course working with our allies to ensure that we have the very best technology to protect our armed forces and keep this country safe.

I obviously cannot go into the details of the capability that we have—I do not think that that would be sensible for the security of our country—but, having visited the system that is in place at Heathrow, I can say that it is incredibly effective.

The recent drone intrusions at Gatwick and Heathrow were highly embarrassing and created great inconvenience for thousands of passengers but, more importantly, they presented a real and significant security risk. We are all indebted to the armed forces personnel who worked to tackle those intrusions, but we clearly need a long-term solution to this growing challenge. Will the Minister tell us why it is taking the Government so long to bring forward regulations to introduce a wider exclusion zone around airports and ensure the safety of UK airspace?

We take this matter incredibly seriously, and it is important to get things absolutely right because there are all sorts of implications for the aspects of security that we will need to introduce. We are working across Government, and the MOD is providing its advice and expertise to ensure that we get proper legislation in place to make the response effective.