Skip to main content

Airports: Heathrow

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What additional measures they propose to ensure that all workers at Heathrow Airport are fully security cleared.

My Lords, all airside staff must pass stringent physical screening and searches every day. As part of the layered approach to security, all airside pass holders at UK airports, regardless of their nationality, are also subject to extensive pre-employment background checks, and those engaged in security activities must also pass a counterterrorism check. A fundamental review of personnel security screening across the transport sector was commissioned last December and will report in the summer.

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for that reply, can he explain why foreign workers from inside and outside the EU are not checked for possible crimes committed in their countries of origin, especially those who work—as the noble Lord mentioned—airside?

My Lords, it is obviously very difficult to check on the criminal records of those overseas; I am sure that the noble Baroness accepts that. We cannot currently do that for applicants. The Criminal Records Bureau is developing agreements to exchange data for employment vetting purposes with other EU member states and jurisdictions, and these measures will complement the checks that employers undertake to satisfy themselves about potential employees.

My Lords, can the Minister have a discussion with the Security Industry Authority to see whether it can be of any help in this matter, particularly with regard to looking at people from overseas who apply for jobs? I find it extraordinary that, because we are not within the Schengen information system, we do not get the information we need about people who should not be here taking on those jobs.

My Lords, we already work very closely with the Security Industry Authority, which has been doing extremely valuable work. I asked for some of this data. The right-to-work checks have thrown up many cases that are now subject to a challenge process, ensuring that we have greater levels of security. The Security Industry Authority is also working very closely with the UK Border Agency.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the distinction between airside and non-airside workers is somewhat artificial? Surely there is mixing of personnel in certain common areas. Has the vast quantity of commercial vehicles entering airports been adequately taken into account from a security point of view?

My Lords, I think it has. I cannot agree with the noble Lord that the difference between airside workers and non-airside workers is blurred. Airside workers have to be physically searched. A whole range of physical security measures is in place for staff and used daily; that is clearly not the case for those working non-airside. Staff are subject to detailed security checks in much the same way as the noble Lord or I would be as passengers. They have to go through those very rigorous checks whenever entering airside, so there is a very clear distinction.

My Lords, I am delighted at the information that has come to light on this. Would the noble Lord, in his capacity as Minister for the Home Office, say what action the UK Border Agency is now going to take to ensure that people who are working airside at airports are not in fact illegal immigrants?

My Lords, right-to-work checks are made. All non-EU nationals must prove their right to work in the UK. Staff have to go through a background check that looks at their work history over the previous five years. You would have to be a long-term sleeper in an organisation to get past that check. Those checks are very rigorous and full references have to be taken up. If there is any hint of failure to match those checks, that person is rejected as a potential employee.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, if we are asking other Governments for information on the potential criminal background of people, we have to provide information ourselves? That needs some form of international regulation, and that is one of ways in which the European Union provides a rather useful multilateral framework for exchanging data under safeguards. That is one of the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, has so far failed to recognise in our very lengthy procedures over several days on a related matter.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a perfectly reasonable Euro-enthusiast point; I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate that. We obviously have data-sharing protocols and arrangements in place. We are trying to work with many other jurisdictions to ensure that we can share that data on a like-for-like basis. It is complicated because different offences are treated differently in different jurisdictions, but we need to have that. That is an issue that the Magee review and the Stephen Boys Smith review will be looking at together.

My Lords, for how much longer are the Government prepared to tolerate the poor administration carried out by the British Airports Authority at Heathrow, which is doing real damage to our competitiveness as well as causing great inconvenience to travelling public? Is it not time that we applied the big stick of competition to BAA’s position in respect of its ownership of this airport?

My Lords, that is rather wide of the Question, but I know that that point often comes up in your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord was a member of an Administration who carried out that privatisation some years ago. No doubt he probably feels the weight of responsibility for some of that.

My Lords, the Minister has not answered the Question on those with criminal records in foreign countries.

My Lords, I answered the Question, partly in response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I accept that it is an issue; we are looking at it and want to tackle it. As I said earlier, trying to have common standards for the nature of convictions in foreign jurisdictions is not an easy issue. However, we are mindful of it, and very much on the case. We cannot afford to have weakness and porous borders. We must ensure that staff working in airports and in the transport sector are rigorously checked. Everyone accepts that.