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Terrorism: Aviation Security

Volume 721: debated on Monday 1 November 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home department. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the recent airline bomb plot. The House will know that in the early hours of Friday morning, following information from intelligence sources, the police identified a suspect package on board a UPS courier aircraft which had landed at East Midlands Airport en route from Cologne to Chicago. Later during the morning, police explosives experts identified that the device contained explosive material. A similar device was located and identified in Dubai; it was being transported by FedEx to Chicago.

Since then, an intensive investigation has been taking place in this country and overseas. COBRA met on Friday to assess progress. I chaired a COBRA meeting on Saturday. The Prime Minister chaired a further COBRA meeting this morning. The House will appreciate that much of this investigation is sensitive and that the information I can give is necessarily limited. Disclosure of some details could prejudice the investigation, the prospects of bringing the perpetrators to justice, our national security and the security of our allies. But I want to give the House as full a picture as possible.

We know that both explosive devices originated in Yemen. We believe that they were made and dispatched by the organisation known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This group, which is based in Yemen, was responsible for the attempted downing of an aircraft bound for Detroit on 25 December last year.

The devices were probably intended to detonate mid-air and to destroy the cargo aircraft on which they were being transported. Our own analysis of the device here—analysis which has to proceed with great care to preserve the evidential value of the recovered material—established by Saturday morning that it was viable; this means not only that it contained explosive material but that it could have detonated. Had the device detonated, we assess that it could have succeeded in bringing down the aircraft. Our forensic examination of the device continues. We are receiving valuable assistance from a wide range of partners. The analysis has some way to go.

At this stage, we have no information to suggest that another attack of a similar type by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is imminent, but this organisation is very active. During this year, it has repeatedly attacked targets in Yemen. On 26 April and 6 October, it attacked and attempted to kill British diplomats based in San’a’. It continues to plan other attacks in the region, notably against Saudi Arabia.

We therefore work on the assumption that this organisation will wish to continue to find ways of also attacking targets further afield. We will continue to work with international partners to deal with this threat. We have for some years provided assistance to the Yemeni Government and will continue to do so. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Saleh to make clear our desire for a closer security relationship.

Following the Detroit incident, Ministers in the last Government took the decision to stop all direct passenger and cargo aircraft flying from Yemen to and through the UK. Over the weekend, we took the further step of stopping all unaccompanied air freight to this country from Yemen. This will include air freight from Yemen carried on both courier flights and hold-loaded in passenger aircraft. The small number of items in transit prior to this direction have been subject to rigorous investigation on arrival in the UK, and no further suspicious items have been discovered.

We are now taking further steps to maintain our security. I can confirm to the House that we will review all aspects of air freight security and work with international partners to make sure that our defences are as robust as possible. We will update the guidance given to airport security personnel, based on what we have learnt, to enable them to identify similar packages in future. From midnight tonight, we will extend the suspension of unaccompanied air freight to this country, not just from Yemen but also from Somalia. This decision has been made as a precautionary measure and it will be reviewed in the coming weeks. It is based on possible contact between al-Qaeda in Yemen and terrorist groups in Somalia, as well as concern about airport security in Mogadishu. From midnight tonight, we will suspend the carriage of toner cartridges larger than 500g in passengers’ hand baggage on flights departing from UK airports. Also from midnight tonight, we will prohibit the carriage of these items by air cargo into, via or from the UK unless they originate from a known consignor: a regular shipper with security arrangements approved by the Department for Transport.

We intend that these final two measures will be in place initially for one month. During that time, we will work closely with the aviation industry, screening equipment manufacturers and others, to devise a sustainable, proportionate, long-term security regime to address the threat. Department for Transport officials are already in technical discussions with the industry and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport will chair a high-level industry meeting later this week to discuss next steps.

These initiatives are in addition to those which we have set out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review. We are already committed to widening checks on visa applicants to this country. Following the Detroit incident, we are also committed to making changes to pre-departure checks to identify better the people who pose a terrorist threat and to prevent them flying to the UK. We are also committed to enhancing our e-borders programme which provides data on who is travelling to this country and is, therefore, an essential foundation for our counterterrorist and wider security work.

We have an increasingly active and important border co-operation programme with counterparts in the United States. The Detroit incident led to the introduction of further passenger scanning devices at key airports in the UK. COBRA will continue to meet throughout this week. The National Security Council will also consider this issue. We will continue to work closely with our partners overseas.

Finally, the House will wish to join me in expressing gratitude to the police and the security and intelligence agencies in this country for the work they are doing to understand the threat that we face and to deal with it so effectively”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend the Home Secretary in the other place and for the detailed information contained in it. The whole country has been shocked by the events of the past four days and by the discovery of two concealed and hard-to-detect explosive devices, one at East Midlands Airport and the other in Dubai, and by the very serious and challenging threat that such terrorist activity constitutes to public safety and our country’s security. There can be no complacency when it comes to preventing and dealing with terrorism.

The noble Baroness has said that the devices were probably intended to detonate in mid-air and that had they done so, they could have succeeded in bringing the aircraft down. Today, my right honourable friend the shadow Home Secretary, Mr Ed Balls, has commended the Home Secretary for the calm way in which she has led the response to these threats. I join him and the Minister in commending our police, intelligence and security services for the vital work that they have undertaken in the past few days, in close co-operation with our allies around the world, to save lives.

It is the job of the Opposition to ask questions, to probe statements and to hold the Government to account. We will do that but we shall also be mindful, at all times, of our wider responsibility to support necessary actions, to keep our citizens safe and to protect our national interests. In that spirit, I pose a number of questions to the Minister in three areas: first, the detailed events of the past few days; secondly, the implication of the events for airline security; and, thirdly, the implications for wider security policy.

On the first point, we all appreciate that where intelligence and international co-operation are involved, events move fast and things are always clearer in hindsight. At what point were the police, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister first told about the potential threat? Were there delays in getting precise information to our security and police officers on the ground? Can the noble Baroness say why the device was not discovered by police officers during the first search? Would early information have made a material difference? What operational lessons will be learnt from dealing with such events in the future?

The second area concerns the fact that these two live explosive devices were intercepted only by an intelligence tip-off after they had already been carried on a number of different planes, including passenger planes, giving rise to serious questions about the security of our airspace. Some security experts have referred to cargo security as a potential blind spot. The noble Baroness will be aware of comments made by BALPA to that effect over the weekend. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, drew attention to the potential risks of cargo transit in his annual reports in 2007 and 2008. As a result, significant actions were taken to improve intelligence and international security co-operation, and a tougher search method—explosives trace detection—was introduced for passenger flights following the Detroit attempted attack.

I appreciate that this is a complex problem to solve, that a review has already been established and that the Home Secretary has already acted to ban unaccompanied cargo packages from Yemen. The Minister has also set out, in the Statement, a series of measures that the Government have already taken. What conclusions does the Minister draw about the reliability of current checks from the fact that the device was not spotted on first check by police experts at East Midlands Airport? Will the review consider extending explosives trace detection to cargo flights? Will the scope of the review cover cargo being carried in passenger aircraft? Are there other immediate actions that we should take now to improve the security of cargo coming into, out of or transiting through the UK while the review is being undertaken?

The events of the past few days raise wider issues for our national security and counterterrorism strategy. It is clear that terrorists operating from Yemen constitute an increasing threat. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are in urgent discussions with the Yemeni Government and our allies around the world with a view to interrupting terrorist activities at source? Given the wider evidence of a mounting threat, the judgments that underpin the Government’s current review of counterterrorism powers will be especially important. While we will reserve judgment until we see the outcome of the review, we have said that we will support the Home Secretary where we can and that consensus should be our shared goal.

I raise the issue of resources. Given that these explosive devices were intercepted through vital intelligence work, is the Minister confident that a 6 per cent real-terms cut in the single intelligence account over the next four years can be managed without compromising this vital work? Given that the device was discovered by specially trained police working closely with our security and border services, is she confident that a 10 per cent real-terms cut in counterterrorism police over the next four years, and a 50 per cent cut in capital available to the UK Border Agency, will not undermine our operational capability?

The Olympics, when the eyes of the world will be on this country, are now just two years away. With a planned 20 per cent real-terms cut, front-end loaded, in police budgets—a 6 per cent cut in the year before the Olympics and an 8 per cent cut in the year of the Olympics—can the Minister assure the House that, given the extra strain that police resources will face, this does not pose an unacceptable risk to fighting crime and to our national security? Finally, does the Minister agree that, in the light of the events of the past few days, the issue of resources should now be looked at again alongside the counterterrorism review?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord opposite for his willingness to support the Government in the next measures that will have to be taken in what the House will agree is a challenging task concerning the transport of freight around the world. I am sure the police and the security services are grateful for his joint commendation of them.

The noble Lord asked a number of detailed questions, and I will do my best to answer them. First, he asked when people were informed. I can say that the device was removed from the plane at 3.30 in the morning and work continued through the night. In the early morning, the information was fed to London, and Ministers began to be informed shortly after 8 o’clock. The Home Secretary was personally informed nearer lunchtime. The Prime Minister was also informed then, and at that stage they were given a significant analysis of the investigations that had taken place and the information and assessment that was then available.

The noble Lord asked about the police investigation at the airport. There are two aspects to this: the intelligence tip-off and the process of investigation of the device. He rightly remarked that these packages were looked at following an intelligence tip-off. I might say that any implication—I am not suggesting that the noble Lord was implying this—that this was somehow accidental and that we were very fortunate, as we undoubtedly were, is slightly beside the point. I think the House will agree that we pursue a multilayered approach in this, and that it is the combination of the physical measures that we take, the protective procedures that we put in place and the intelligence context that we maintain around the world that enables us to give the people of this country the security that they are entitled to receive. It is very fortunate that our security relationships worked on this occasion and that the tip-off proved extremely accurate.

The police investigation proceeded in stages. Of course, the police are extremely careful about the way in which they dismantle a device not only because it may be dangerous but because they need to retain the evidential information. It is fair to say that they did not discover the device immediately, but they were still proceeding with their investigation when information came from Dubai that it had found evidence of a device. Subsequent work done at East Midlands Airport unravelled the precise nature of the device, which was then explored in detail.

The noble Lord also asked about the precautions that may be taken for cargo security while the wider review, which I mentioned, is under way. Those regulations are pretty stringent; they require any cargo that does not come from a trusted, listed consigner known to the airport authorities and approved by the Department for Transport to undergo stringent security tests. Therefore, only those items whose origin is known have a relatively easy passage, but I can assure the House that these regulations will be enforced with the utmost stringency in the foreseeable period. Very clearly, we will need to look in great detail not only at the procedures that we ourselves enforce in this country, but at what happens to cargo coming towards the United Kingdom—obviously something on which we will need to consult widely. There obviously has to be international co-operation and, in co-operation with other countries, we might wish to lay down new standards.

The noble Lord also asked about the relationship between what this episode tells us and our wider counterterrorism policy. Clearly, this episode tells us that we face a threat not just to passengers but to cargo and freight, unaccompanied and accompanied. It is perfectly possible, after all, for these people to do what they were doing on the basis of accompanied freight. Therefore, the Government are not relaxed and will not confine their investigation or the measures that they take to unaccompanied freight. We will look at a number of measures that may be necessary, and the Transport Secretary’s consultation and investigation will be quite wide-ranging, because we clearly need a higher level of assurance about cargo transit and transport.

On the relationship between our wider counterterrorism policies and on the Security Service, which the noble Lord asked about, I can assure the House that, based on an assessment by the head of the Security Service, we will be able to maintain, on proposed funding, the same assurance about our coverage and knowledge of terrorist activity in this country and elsewhere that we have had previously. That also applies to the role of our police in counterterrorism where we are protecting the Olympics budget and where we have confirmation from the head of counterterrorism command that he is able to carry out his duties on the basis of the funding that he will get. There is no reason to suppose that the measures that the Government are taking will in any way detract from, inhibit or prevent this country taking care of the security of the population of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the Home Office appointee on the Metropolitan Police Authority, with responsibility for overseeing counterterrorism and security. I, too, am grateful to the Minister for the full account that she has given. With what degree of certainty does she feel that these devices would have been detected had they been in checked-in passenger baggage on a flight embarking in the United Kingdom? Given the variations in standards of airline security in different parts of the world, what degree of certainty does she have regarding incoming flights that such baggage would have been detected at airports elsewhere in the world? What will her answers mean in terms of current levels of aircraft security for passenger airlines in this country?

The noble Lord asks some pertinent and, I have to say, extremely difficult questions. My honest answer to his first question must be that we do not know the answer. This explosive is extremely difficult to detect. Technologies are known for detecting PETN and one consideration that we will have to take advice on is whether we should extend PETN testing to cargo going on board aircraft—most particularly passenger aircraft, but also other aircraft. We have to do this in a way that is consistent with assuring the public that they can travel safely, while not crippling the country’s economy and international commerce. Therefore, an international effort will be needed and we shall talk not only to other operators but to those who may be able to help us technologically. Part of the Transport Secretary’s review will consist of talking to the companies. Many of them are well advanced in increasing—and we will be increasing—the screening processes, including capabilities that are not necessarily at the moment distributed as a matter of course.

My Lords, in the wider context to which both Front Benches referred, can the Minister confirm that control orders are simply not relevant to this situation and that, had they been in place, they would not have prevented it? Would she also like to comment on the remarks made by Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, who talked today about “ludicrous” airport security? He said that,

“we have another … lurch by the securicrats into making travel even more uncomfortable and an even more tedious ordeal for the public”.

I say this not as a cheap shot—although one might say that, if anyone knows about that, he would—but because I think that these are serious points, which should be responded to.

My Lords, I do not think that we are discussing the control orders today. As for what Mr O’Leary of Ryanair said, he does perhaps have extraordinary timing. The view that the Government take is that airport security is extraordinarily important and we cannot let our guard down. That does not mean, of course, that there is never any room for improvement, for review or for looking at those things that could constitute an assurance of greater security. My right honourable friend the Transport Secretary said the other day that he intended to look at whether procedures could be improved and, in particular, whether we could proceed to some extent by way of audit rather than by laying the emphasis on the input side and insisting on lots of layers of security. However, we will wish to proceed extremely cautiously, in the light of events, in lowering or in any way interfering with the current security precautions, which I think give the travelling public a measure of assurance about the seriousness with which these issues are taken by the Government.

My Lords, I speak as the president of BALPA. The Minister spoke about widespread consultations. Has BALPA been included in this? If not, why not? Should not BALPA be included in the review? Is it not absurd that pilots, with all their expertise, should be subjected to stringent inspection before they board the aircraft? Finally, will pilots be consulted further on the relevant rules concerning cargo?

My Lords, I am absolutely certain that the Transport Secretary will consult everyone who has a contribution to make and BALPA would certainly not be excluded from that. The noble Lord mentions the degree of stringent control over the pilots when they board the aircraft. The House will agree that it is important that those controls are exerted. What we clearly need, however, is to raise controls in other areas.

My Lords, the Minister will recollect that the Statement said that the device seized at East Midlands airport “could have detonated”. Am I placing too slavishly literal an interpretation on that to assume that that refers to a timing device of some nature or, indeed, that the device could have been detonated by remote control? If it could have been detonated by remote control, within what range could that have been achieved?

My Lords, we are not entirely at the stage when we can answer all those very detailed questions—and we may never be. The “could” rather than the “would” relates to a number of factors, including the precise power of the explosive material and the power of the detonator. Also relevant would be where these devices were located in the aircraft—had they been in the middle of the fuselage, they would have been less likely to cause an accident than if, say, they were near the outer skin of the aircraft. There are a number of imponderables. It is fair to say that those who put the devices on board—these were cargo routes, which can vary at the last minute—could not have known in practice where, if they were able to cause a detonation, it would have taken place. It would be hard for them to know exactly how accurate their ability to detonate was.

My Lords, given that terrorists travel both in and out of countries, does my noble friend share my deep concern that at present only people travelling into the United Kingdom have their passports properly examined electronically? Is she aware—I assume that she must be, because any of us who travels must be—that immigration officers make very little attempt to look at the passports of those who are leaving the United Kingdom? Indeed, in April I travelled out of terminal 3 at Heathrow where there was no one at all at the immigration desk to look at one’s passport. When I asked why, I was told that there was nobody available. When is the electronics border system—the e-Borders system—which is meant to record both the departure and the arrival of passengers, going to be in full effect? As a result of what is now happening, will the Minister ensure that scrutiny of people departing from the United Kingdom is properly and electronically achieved?

My Lords, it certainly is the intention that in due course we will be able to record not only incoming travel but outgoing travel as well. The noble Lord is right to say that that is not happening at the moment. It is certainly not happening electronically. I cannot give him, I am afraid, a precise date, but I can say that we are doing our very best to speed up the introduction of e-Borders to enable us to have this information. That would not have necessarily borne directly on this episode, but of course everything helps in giving us greater information about those who are travelling. As I said at the beginning, it is relevant to know not only about cargo but about those who are potentially travelling in the same aircraft.

My Lords, is there not a tremendous disproportionality between the attention with which an individual passenger’s luggage is microscopically examined and what she described as the trusted consigner, whose large packages cannot be examined in anything like the same detail? A second contradiction relates to the long-term interest that we share in the foreign policy of this. We have had many tragic examples now and many budgerigars in the mineshaft, so to speak, of Yemen’s role—growing role, sadly—in international terrorist incidents and of the links between Yemen and Somalia, which she mentioned. I ask her to take to her colleagues the concern of all of us that we look at this not just as a border security issue but as a development issue, an intelligence-gathering issue and a diplomatic issue, which we must not shy away from just because of its difficulty.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, the House would agree that we clearly have to increase the capacity to understand and guarantee that cargo travelling around the world is not a danger to the aircraft that it is in or, indeed, to any people who happen to be on that aircraft. As regards what he said about Yemen, the Government are in full agreement. As your Lordships know, the UK is a leading member of the Friends of Yemen, a group that seeks to underpin and help the Government of Yemen to increase the welfare and economic situation of the people of Yemen. A number of countries are contributing to that and a programme is being formulated that should help to put the Yemeni Government on a much more coherent policy of economic development. Other things are happening, including bilateral actions by the UK. Obviously, one policy object is to increase the local Government’s capacity to combat terrorism and engage in effective counterterrorism. As I said, the Prime Minister assured the President of Yemen of our continued support. However, underpinning that is quite a lot of technical assistance to that Government to enable them to, in a sense, take charge of their own affairs, because ultimately the Yemenis have to create conditions in which terrorists do not flourish on their soil.

My Lords, it has been suggested that it is likely that these bombs would have been exploded in the air. However, earlier it was suggested that they were intended for the recipient of the parcels in Chicago. Can the noble Baroness say any more about why there has been this change of view?

Given the destinations of the packages—one was destined for a synagogue in Chicago and the other for a shared Christian/Jewish centre—there was certainly speculation that these presents were intended for the recipients. I cannot give a precise answer and I would not want to suggest that there is total certainty about what we now assess to be the case—that these devices were intended to explode in mid-air—but the technical analysis tends to suggest that that was more likely to be the intention of the perpetrators.

My Lords, I have a question on a related issue but it is one that comes into the category of “It’s an ill wind”. Can my noble friend say what proportion of the companies engaged in making the security equipment, to which reference has been made, falls into the SME category? These companies have a significantly greater reputation for building employment in growing markets than do much larger companies.

I thank my noble friend for that question. I cannot give him a precise percentage figure, although the implication of his question is that it is considerable, and in that he is absolutely right. In this country we have some big companies that tend to be both defence and security contractors. Underneath and alongside them are myriad small companies, or SMEs, that are indeed the source of much of the innovation and inventive technology and some of the science. In this respect, I should also mention our universities, which, as I think is widely acknowledged, are going to contribute to and underpin the strength of this country in the defence and security technologies. This Government’s policy is greatly to encourage them to grow and to be real contributors to future security, as well as earning a good living for themselves and this country.

My Lords, are we not deeply indebted to foreign national intelligence officials who risk their lives in gathering intelligence to send to us in the democracies? Is a message going out from the British Parliament to thank the people and officials involved in those countries?

The noble Lord has put it extremely well and I endorse what he has just said. Certainly our intelligence effort cannot be just one-sided—it cannot just be a case of what our own people do, although that should also be the object of our commendation. However, the intelligence that we received on this occasion was undoubtedly extraordinarily valuable and was illustrative of the extraordinary importance of developing these relationships and keeping them in good repair. I entirely endorse what the noble Lord said.

My Lords, it was reported on the “World at One” that the Saudi authorities had not informed the Yemeni authorities that there was a suspect package that originated in the Yemen. Was that perhaps a mistake that should be remedied in the future?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have any knowledge of that and cannot confirm it. However, it is clear that international co-operation between the parties is extremely important and we are very grateful to those who have helped us on this occasion.