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Aviation Security

Volume 765: debated on Thursday 5 November 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the recent decisions taken by the Government following the loss of the Russian Metrojet flight on Saturday. I know the House will join with me in expressing our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives: 224 lives were lost. I was able to express our deepest sympathy to the Russian Ambassador yesterday, when the Foreign Secretary and I signed the book of condolence.

We still cannot be certain what caused the loss of the aircraft, but we are reaching the view that a bomb on board is a significant possibility. If this turns out to be the case, it clearly has serious implications for the security of UK nationals flying from Sharm el-Sheikh. We have therefore taken the decision that it was necessary to act. The decisions we have made are based on a review of all the information available to us. Some of it is sensitive. I am not able to go into detail on that information, but the House can be assured that we have taken this decision on the basis of the safety of British citizens.

There are two stages to this process. We are working with the airlines to put in place a short-term measure. This could, for example, include different arrangements for handling luggage. Beyond that, we are working with the Egyptians and airlines to put in place long-term sustainable measures to ensure our flights remain safe. We very much hope that it will be possible to declare that it is safe to fly to the resort and to resume normal flight operations in due course. That is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced yesterday evening that the Government are now advising against all but essential travel by air to or from this airport.

All UK-operated flights to and from the airport have now been suspended. We are working with the Egyptians to assess, and where necessary to improve, security at the airport. More than 900,000 British nationals visit Egypt every year. Most visits are trouble-free. As my right honourable friend said yesterday, we are grateful for the continuing efforts of the Egyptian authorities to work together with us on these vitally important tasks.

The Government are now working with the airline community to put in place interim arrangements for getting people home. This is clearly a very difficult situation for travellers and their families. I would like to thank the airlines for their support during this difficult time, and holidaymakers for their patience. In parallel, specialist teams will be working intensively with the Egyptian authorities to allow normal scheduled operations to recommence.

The decision to suspend flights is a very serious one and has not been taken lightly, but the safety and security of the travelling public is, of course, the Government’s highest priority. We will need to be confident that the security standards meet our expectations and those of the public before we allow services to resume. I recognise that this is a stressful time for British tourists, but we have not changed the travel threat level for the resort itself. People should keep in touch with their tour operators. We also have consular staff on the ground providing assistance. We have aviation security experts on the ground, and will have arrangements to bring people home safely in due course. The airlines are working with us to bring passengers home. No UK-bound aircraft will take off until it is safe to do so. We do not expect flights to leave today, but we hope to have flights leaving tomorrow”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the Commons. We certainly wish to associate ourselves with the condolences expressed in the Statement to the families of the 224 people who have lost their lives.

The Government have said that they still cannot be certain what caused the loss of the Russian MetroJet aircraft, but that they are reaching the view that a bomb on board is a significant possibility. That view is based on a review of all the information available to the Government, some of which cannot be disclosed. However, even without knowing the evidence, I am sure that the Government’s prompt decision to advise against all but essential travel by air to or from Sharm el-Sheikh airport, with the consequence that all UK-operated flights to and from the airport have been suspended, has been made on the basis of the need to ensure the safety of British citizens.

The Statement referred to working with the airlines to put in place short-term measures, which could include different arrangements for handling luggage. It said that beyond that, the Government are working with the Egyptians and the airlines to put in place long-term sustainable measures to ensure that our flights remain safe. If the airlines and the Government have now concluded that there perhaps ought to be different arrangements for handling luggage, is it being said that the current arrangements for handling luggage and other security issues—at an airport in a country and an area of the world which, as has been known for some time, is not exactly the most secure one could find—are not as appropriate or secure as they should be?

The Statement says that the Government are working with the Egyptians to assess and, where necessary, to improve security at the airport. Are the Government able to say that they and our personnel involved have been and are receiving all the co-operation they need from the Egyptian authorities on this issue?

What about the security arrangements at other airports in Egypt? Are they being reassessed? Are the Government now also looking with the airlines concerned at the security arrangements at airports used by British citizens in all parts of the world where there are current security and stability issues? Will the Minister also say what kind of measures are being considered with the Egyptians and the airlines in the light of the reference in the Statement to putting in place,

“long-term sustainable measures to ensure our flights remain safe”?

What are those long-term sustainable measures?

The Statement says that the Government have not changed the threat level for the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh itself. How was the conclusion reached that there is no threat in the wider Sharm el-Sheikh resort, given that the Government have decided to advise against all but essential travel by air to and from the airport, and to suspend all flights to and from the UK?

The Statement says that the airline community is putting in place interim arrangements for getting British citizens home, who as I understand it total some 20,000. I take it that the reference in the Statement to the hope that flights will leave tomorrow relates to flights leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, rather than leaving to go to that airport. How long do the Government expect it will take to get back home all British citizens who wish to return as soon as possible from Sharm el-Sheikh, rather than stay until their scheduled return date? Do the Government have any target date by which they anticipate that flights from this country to Sharm el-Sheikh will resume?

Finally, will the Minister say what consular support the Government are providing to British citizens in the resort and elsewhere in Egypt? I note that the Minister said, “we also have” consular staff, rather than what is in the written Statement. Given that the Statement says “will also have” consular staff on the ground providing assistance—implying that they are not there at the moment—is consular assistance not yet in fact being provided? If it is, or is going to be, provided through moving staff from other locations in Egypt to Sharm el-Sheikh, will consular assistance still be available to British citizens in other parts of Egypt?

My Lords, we must all add our condolences to and sympathy for the families of those killed in this terrible accident. It is a salutary reminder of the perilous state of the world when terrorism strikes at a place so many British people know from their tourist experiences.

The Government have taken what we believe is correct, appropriate, swift and decisive action, because the safety of British citizens is paramount. However, looking at the precise wording of the Statement, I ask the Minister about the level of certainty of the security information. We understand that the security information cannot be made available to all of us here, and nor should it, but we are still interested in the fact that the level of certainty that this was due to a bomb on board is slightly less strong than I would have expected in the Minister’s Statement.

In looking at the long-term experience, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Clearly, for those 20,000 tourists currently waiting to come home from Sharm el-Sheikh, there is a great deal of hope that they will be able to come home very soon, but looking at the long-term issues, there is no certainty in the Minister’s Statement as to how long it will take for normal flights to resume. The Statement refers to “due course”. I am interested in what the Government believe the meaning of that phrase to be.

I, too, was surprised by the reference in the Statement to the threat level in the resort itself not being changed. That is very interesting information, and I would be pleased to hear further detail from the Minister as to why. The obvious concern of the families of tourists currently waiting in the airport and in their hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh is that, by leaving them there, they are in some danger. It is therefore important that they be reassured, if possible, that the level of threat has not changed. Will the Minister explain that in some detail?

On the general implications, as the noble Lord said, Egypt is far from the only trouble spot in the world. Many countries in that region are affected by the same forces. Will the Minister explain the routine processes applied by the Government and by airlines to ensure that security at airports across the world is up to standard? I ask this because those processes have clearly failed in this case. I would value further information on that.

Finally, will UK security specialists, on behalf of the Government or airlines, be located on Egyptian soil in the long term to deal with ongoing threats in that area?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their general support of the actions that the Government have taken. I am sure that they would agree—indeed, all noble Lords would—that the first and primary duty of any Government is the security of their own citizens. Suffice it to say that the decision in the Statement, as I said, was not one that the Government took lightly. It was made after due consideration and it was felt to be entirely appropriate and in line with that very principle of protecting our own citizens.

To take up some of the questions raised first by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, starting with the general question of personnel and people on the ground, yes, consular staff are already on the ground. Indeed, in addition we have sent staff from Her Majesty’s Government, including aviation experts from my department, the Department for Transport, and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who are assisting our citizens on the ground directly.

The noble Lord also asked about long-term measures. As I said, these are being reviewed. Of course, I cannot comment on some of these details because they are specifically security-led. When it comes to aviation security, we have an ongoing arrangement with airports across the world. This has just been done. It is a continuing requirement and we continue to conduct regular visits to various parts of the world to review security arrangements on the ground, in conjunction with the sovereign authorities in those countries.

On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about the threat to the resort, I want to be very clear that the advice we have been given—as I said, we are working with the airlines on this, as well as the Egyptian authorities—relates specifically to flights into and out of Sharm el-Sheikh airport. The resort itself is not considered to have increased risks. I stress this point since the question was raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about flights due to leave tomorrow. He is correct in assuming that these are flights departing from, rather than arriving in, Sharm el-Sheikh. To be clear, we have decided—as any responsible Government would—that until we are satisfied that the risk has been addressed and the additional measures put in place, it is appropriate for flights into the resort to remain suspended.

The noble Baroness asked about security arrangements across the world. I have addressed that in part. We have continuing arrangements with authorities across the world to review aviation security arrangements in airports regularly to ensure that they are meeting required standards. The noble Baroness also raised the issue of the level of certainty. Currently, we can neither confirm nor rule out that this was a terrorist incident. The actions that we have taken suggest that we take seriously the possibility of the flight’s having been impacted by a bomb.

With regard to other questions raised about the general response, these decisions are being taken seriously. To update the House, two COBRA meetings have taken place, one yesterday and one earlier today. These were chaired by the Prime Minister. In addition, as noble Lords will be aware, the Prime Minister has also met with President Sisi at Downing Street. These matters, which are of concern not just to us in Britain but to the Egyptian Government, have been discussed and appropriate issues raised.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the discussion that the Prime Minister is having with President Sisi today. Is Her Majesty’s Government’s position as a candid friend to Egypt that to deal with terrorism does not mean that it is appropriate to lock up the thousands of democracy activists, secularists, bloggers and all manner of people who simply want to express their right to free speech and to have an opinion? Will the Prime Minister’s discussions take into account that you do not fight terrorism by locking up people who just ask for democracy and human rights?

As I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, we have broad discussions with the Egyptian authorities and others over the concerns that she is raising in relation to human rights. These continue. My noble friend Lady Anelay is specifically responsible for human rights within the Government. We continue to raise these issues. The meeting took place at 12.45 this afternoon and matters of mutual interest were raised. We defend human rights, raising concerns there as they are put to us, not just in our discussions with Egypt but with other friends and allies across the world. It is right to raise these issues.

My Lords, I return to the position of the British citizens currently stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh. Various assessments of the numbers involved have ranged up to 20,000, although some of the travel agencies have said that the number is nearer to 12,000. Will the Minister update us?

On the question of consular support, have consular officials been brought in from neighbouring jurisdictions? Consular work is sensitive, difficult and requires training. It should have been possible to have brought in some of our consular officials from neighbouring countries. Have consular officials been able to leave the United Kingdom to give support to their colleagues in Egypt, because presumably there will be consular officials going out of our embassy in Cairo?

Are British-based airlines being approached to go to Sharm el-Sheikh to bring out our citizens? I think that the Statement said that the first are expected to be able to leave tomorrow. One cannot help wondering what is happening to people who may be at the end of a holiday period and who have not got funding available to pay for extra flights, let alone for extra nights in Sharm el-Sheikh, for food or for sustaining young families. I hope that the Minister will address that.

As regards forensics, this was a Russian aircraft over Egyptian territory. We are good at forensics, being acknowledged as being among the foremost countries. Have we been asked or have we offered to provide forensic support on the ground? That does not impinge on intelligence. Have we been asked for or have we offered support to go to Sharm el-Sheikh to look at what happened to this aircraft? There are all sorts of rumours about the condition of the plane and the condition of the dead, for whom we all have sympathy as we do for their families. Are we playing our part as regards forensics?

The noble Baroness is right to return to this key concern that we all share for the British citizens on the ground. She is quite right that the numbers have varied. That is partly due to the fact that some numbers and details come from the tour operators and other people have gone there of their own accord, perhaps visiting or passing through the country. The figure that the media are primarily using is 20,000. That is the figure at which we are looking at the highest level. Some may well be there serving and working throughout Egypt. It is not possible to give an exact number now. Nevertheless, we are fully aware of the assessments and working very closely with the carriers.

She asked about the airlines. This morning, we have had the airlines working with us at the Department for Transport. They are working together and with the Government. I acknowledge, as did the Secretary of State, the incredible support and co-operation that they are giving to the Government and to the authorities and in particular to the people on the ground.

She rightly raised the issue of those who, financially, could not afford to make arrangements. Again, through the airlines we are working to ensure that anyone whose flights are delayed, or who are delayed in the resort, are also catered for without extra financial hardship. She is also aware from her own experience that there is a specific fund that has been created to deal with these issues, the hardship fund. We believe that the combination of factors, working together with the airline operators and the Egyptian authorities, will enable us to address the primary concerns and to facilitate the safe departure of all those who wish to leave the resort as soon as possible.

She raised the valid point about this being a Russian plane. I can assure the noble Baroness that this afternoon, following the visit by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport and Foreign Office representatives to the Russian ambassador, the Prime Minister will be speaking to Mr Putin directly. Without pre-empting what the Prime Minister or President may discuss, I am sure that during the course of those discussions we shall, as we do when such tragedies happen around the world, seek to extend whatever assistance we can from the British Government.

My Lords, the noble Lord did not address the issue of forensics that was raised by my noble friend directly. The subtext to his Statement is that the evidence of a device on board is not forensic; otherwise, the Government would probably have placed the information in the public domain. Therefore, we must presume that it was intelligence based. We know that the evidence of intelligence information is not going to be placed in the public domain, but in so far as the Egyptian economy is going to be quite badly damaged as a result of this and we know that there have been protests from Ministers in the Egyptian Government, surely we owe it to them at least to give the Egyptian Government some information, not as to the source but as to what intelligence information we may have gained that has led us to take the decision that we have taken?

I assure the noble Lord that the situation with regard to forensics is ongoing and evolving as more details emerge, which we will provide when that is possible. We have made a Statement to the House today. I have also shared with noble Lords the fact that two COBRA meetings have occurred. As the noble Lord is aware, it is not just the President meeting our Prime Minister today; other officials are also attending. Those meetings will be used to share information and our concerns. We will use this opportunity to discuss this matter with them. Notwithstanding some of the media reports, the reciprocal arrangements that we had in place with Egypt before this tragedy occurred have worked well. We have a good relationship with the Egyptian Government. The respective authorities have been extremely co-operative throughout yesterday and during the last day or so. The common cause and concern we all share is to identify and, more importantly, address the exact reason why this tragedy occurred. The noble Lord is also right to point out that this is based on the intelligence that the Government have received thus far. However, I cannot go into more detail on that. I reiterate that after the COBRA meeting today the Prime Minister said specifically that our hearts and sympathy go out to the Egyptian people. However, as I repeated at the start of the Statement, our primary concern—I am sure the noble Lord shares that—must rightly be for UK citizens. That is what we are putting first.

This is clearly a tragedy for the Russians and, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, reminded us, obviously does enormous damage to the already battered Egyptian economy. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, also reminded us of the appalling disruption, particularly for families, when suddenly they find that their planned charter or schedule return will not happen for 24 hours. The pith of the Statement seems to be that it will be safe to fly out of Sharm el-Sheikh tomorrow but it is not safe to do so today. That is the message that will have to be given to a lot of tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh. The Minister cannot tell us everything but can he explain, so that one can explain to the tourists themselves, what will change between today, when everything has been cancelled, and tomorrow, when we will have to put on all sorts of charter flights and special flights, make special arrangements, reschedule leave and reorganise schedules to make it safe for people to start flying again?

As my noble friend will know from his own experience, these matters are very fluid. As I said, we are hoping to resume flights at the earliest possible time, as the Statement indicated. We want to ensure that we can facilitate the safe departure of those who want to leave as soon as possible. We are making sure that various factors are in place to ensure that we can facilitate that. The volume of people who wish to leave Sharm el-Sheikh requires certain logistics to be in place on the ground. As I indicated in responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, we are working very closely with the airlines to ensure that the correct number of aircraft are available to facilitate the departure of this sizeable number of people. However, ultimately, we will be driven in all of this by the need to ensure that we are satisfied with the security arrangements for their safe passage and departure from Sharm el-Sheikh.

My Lords, a noble Lord asked about routeing. Some airlines have announced that they will change their routeing and some have refused to comment on their routeing. Is it possible to devise a mechanism whereby passengers can be reassured that their flights in the future will avoid some of the world’s trouble spots such as Syria and Iraq—and now we have to add Egypt?

Airlines share information with their passengers as they consider appropriate. All that it is appropriate for me to say at this point is that the Government receive intelligence reports from across the world. We share certain reports with airlines and we share certain levels of advice. Based on that, and in the light of events, some of which the noble Duke has articulated, airlines make certain adjustments. We could go into the mechanics of the extent to which threats can be realised in some parts of the world and the height at which planes should be flying. All these things are of a very technical nature. However, the authorities, Governments and airlines correspond with each other on a regular basis with regard to security measures to ensure that passengers of whatever nationality, wherever they are in the world, can be protected across the world.

My Lords, while essentially the House will be fully behind the Government’s rapid response to this situation, does the Minister agree that we should be concerned about not simply the British people who are affected but all those involved, and that we should express—as, indeed, he has—the strongest possible solidarity and support for the victims and those who have been bereaved by this incident? Is this not another cruel illustration of the nihilistic, brutal techniques employed by those who take such action and a total denial of any concept of human rights for the victims? In that context, is it not more important than ever that in all we do to try to reach international arrangements to prevent such situations, we always demonstrate that we will be second to none in our own upholding of human rights?

The British Government have a very distinguished record in upholding human rights. I totally agree with the noble Lord that we should empathise with all involved in this situation. This is a real challenge primarily for the Egyptian nation itself. Certain actions have been taken. As I said, we are still awaiting further details to substantiate the exact causes of this tragedy. Nevertheless, it is important that, as a responsible UK Government, our first concern must be to ensure the safety and security of UK citizens and residents. At the same time, as I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, it has always been the case, and should continue to be so today and for future Governments, that we extend whatever assistance and co-operation we can to others when such tragedies occur. We have done so before and we are doing so now.

My Lords, is this not a wake-up call because we have all got so used to being body searched and searched for liquids and goodness knows what else, and now somebody has got through and almost certainly put a bomb on an airplane? Instead of asking whether we should know about routeings or anything else, I hope my noble friend agrees that we should all take it on ourselves to stop moaning about what happens at airports and just be eternally vigilant. Is it true that a United States official spoke to an internet company such as AP that reported this, saying that the US had obtained evidence about a terrorist threat and a bomb on that plane through having listened to conversations? That is what the BBC is reporting today.

As regards my noble friend’s final point, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on media speculation. Generally speaking, intelligence agencies, and the sharing of intelligence with our allies to avert any such tragedy, is an important part of how international co-operation works. I agree absolutely with her earlier point about a wake-up call. This is very close to home for me as I am the Minister responsible for aviation security at the Department for Transport. I assure noble Lords that we have regular reviews in place. I look regularly at the issues and challenges we face on this front. In doing so, officials and Ministers engage with, but also visit, different locations to review security arrangements. The challenge we face—it is out there, we have all said it before and I am sure we all relate to it—is that a determined terrorist will go to any length to achieve their aim and their aim, ultimately, is to cause disruption and destruction to innocent lives. We must come together to universally condemn it and I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have spoken today. Notwithstanding the questions that they have rightly asked, we have come together rightly to condemn this tragedy, in which the current quite strong suggestion is that a bomb was involved.

My Lords, I have no difficulty in accepting the Government’s view that a bomb is a significant possibility. I am sure my noble friend will agree that, if it was a bomb, there is no possibility other than that it was a terrorist incident. As the noble Baroness from the other side said, I think we can all agree that the minimum way of dealing with terrorists is to lock them up. In that context, taking into account the history of terrorism in recent years in Egypt, it is obviously very important to know who is responsible. ISIS has already claimed, apparently, to have downed the aircraft. When do the Government expect to publish the report of the Jenkins inquiry into the terrorist links of the Muslim Brotherhood?

I thank my noble friend for his support of the Government’s position. The review to which he referred is being looked at by the Government and we will, I am sure, look to publish it at the earliest opportunity. He asked about the links we have; indeed, he suggested, and it has been widely reported, that Daesh/ISIL has claimed responsibility. As I was coming into the Chamber I noticed, again through media outlets, that a video to that effect has been released. The threat we face from ISIL/Daesh is real and is leveraging itself not just in that region but beyond.

The other thing I will say about ISIL/Daesh is that its recruitment methods are such that it seeks to recruit not just from different countries within the region but, regrettably, from right here in the United Kingdom. We are taking steps to avert and prevent our citizens travelling to support such a perverse ideology and cause. Wherever we see acts of terror we will collaborate with all right-minded Governments to ensure that we can eradicate it.