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Airports: Immigration and Security

Volume 704: debated on Monday 27 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to secure compliance with immigration and security rules in relation to passengers travelling abroad using private aircraft or non-scheduled flights from and into smaller airports.

My Lords, the UK Border Agency, with the police, pursues an intelligence-led, risk-based approach to controls on general aviation. Passengers are required to provide specific information before take-off. In future, this will be combined with the e-borders programme, to ensure that information is used most effectively, allowing the most appropriate deployment and follow-up action. We are working with all involved to identify additional measures necessary in this area.

My Lords, that all sounds very good, but is not the reality such that the flight plan is filed giving the number of passengers, but nobody checks whether that number actually get on board the aircraft? On the way home they certainly do not check the numbers getting on board. The net result is that the smaller airports are just a leaky entry into the UK.

My Lords, I do not think that that is completely true. This is an area of concern which I raised last summer when I came into post, and we have done considerable work since. To put it into context, we must realise that 99.5 per cent of everyone coming in and out of this country goes through the top airports and ports, which are covered 24/7. We use Special Branch, the police, local communities, pilots and owner-operators to make sure that we liaise and talk things through to try to cover the loopholes. The system is not perfect yet but we are working hard down that route.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with my noble friend Lord Carlile, who said in his most recent report, published in June, that there is a measurable risk of executive jets being hijacked and used for terrorist purposes? If so, while many companies adopt reliable and effective procedures to counter terrorism, does the noble Lord think that the Government should impose statutory standards on the operators of private jets, or at least that there should be guidance issued on the procedures adopted to stop terrorists gaining control of these aircraft?

My Lords, again it is a question of scale and should be looked at on a risk basis. There are about 480 or 490 small aerodromes around the United Kingdom. To cover them all, with people there 24/7, would be extremely resource-intensive. We liaise closely with local communities, the police, Special Branch, and the airlines. We have had some good success rates in stopping people smuggling stuff into the country and with various other operations. Although it is not ideal, we have to keep a balance, and we are moving down the right route.

My Lords, in terms of the normal burden of passengers travelling out of the main airports, what progress has been made on the e-borders programme? Has the “authority to travel” capability, which the noble Lord advised me in May was due to be introduced in October this year, been introduced? If not, why not?

My Lords, I shall come back to the noble Baroness on the details as I am not completely clear whether that has happened. As regards e-borders themselves, we have identified who will be proceeding with the various parts of that programme, which is on track. It will make a great difference because we will be able to check people not only into but out of this country. That was stopped in 1994, but it is crucial if we are to monitor numbers and other things involving counterterrorism.

My Lords, with the increase in the use of stolen passports and stolen identities, does my noble friend agree that the sooner that we move towards biometric identifiers, in many cases, the better?

My Lords, I agree totally with my noble friend; that is extremely important and will make things a lot easier for us. That does not mean that people cannot try to copy biometrics or use them fraudulently, but it is very difficult and will give us a much better feel for what is going on.

My Lords, are all major airports—not flying strips—now covered by the Border Agency? In asking that I point out—for once, I am going to give great congratulations to the Government—that when coming back into Britain now through airports covered by the Border Agency, you are treated like a human being, staff actually smile and you feel welcomed to Britain.

My Lords, I am taken aback; it is so nice to have something like that said. I agree; I think that the fact that staff are in uniform makes a difference as well. I know that some people in the agency itself did not like that, but now they are warming to it. It makes them look more efficient and works better. As I understand it, the 30 major airports are all covered 24/7. If that is incorrect, I shall get back to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain what arrangements are in place at marinas to monitor those who exit the country and return on yachts?

My Lords, my noble friend is unfairly picking on an admiral. Rather like general aviation, that is an extremely difficult area with which we are trying to grapple and have been since last summer. There are millions of movements of small boats, and we are grappling with how to monitor them properly in future. How we fit that in with e-borders is quite complicated, and I do not yet have a clear vision of how that will happen.