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Aviation: Sharm el-Sheikh

Volume 776: debated on Thursday 3 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current guidance on flights from the United Kingdom landing in Egypt, and in particular Sharm El-Sheikh.

My Lords, following the Metrojet crash, the Foreign Office travel advice was changed so that direct air services between the UK and Sharm el-Sheikh Airport were halted. Flights to all other Egyptian airports were unaffected. UK aviation security experts continue to work closely with their Egyptian counterparts on the ground, sharing their expertise in establishing effective security arrangements. We look forward to achieving the return of flights once we can be assured of there being the necessary secure and sustainable security situation on the ground.

My Lords, all your Lordships will want to be assured about the safety and security of British tourists abroad. Given the considerable improvements that have been instituted at Sharm el-Sheikh Airport, we now have a situation where Belgian and German flights are being resumed. Indeed, as my noble friend said, all other Egyptian airports are open for business. In these circumstances, given that Sharm el-Sheikh is the epicentre of Egyptian tourism, will my noble friend look afresh and very directly at these new changed circumstances, given the catastrophic impact on the Egyptian economy and its stability, and on our winter tour operators?

I can assure my noble friend that we are mindful of the impacts that have been felt locally. As my noble friend will be aware from his recent visit, our officials from the DfT have been working very closely with the Egyptians on the ground. He mentioned other nations choosing to return flights. That is very much a matter for them, but I am minded of the fact that we are yet to see the final results of the inquiry that the Egyptians have conducted into the Metrojet crash. He will also be aware that the Russians, who were obviously involved directly in that inquiry, are also yet to report back, although they did provisionally say that the crash resulted from a terrorist attack on the plane.

My Lords, when I was at Marks & Spencer, we did not employ technologists who delighted in banning things because of risk; we employed people who had the creativity to find solutions. Are those responsible for banning these flights aware of the risk to British citizens of radicalising the 4 million people we are putting out of work in Egypt?

As a former Minister responsible for countering extremism, I can assure the noble Lord that we are very much cognisant of the challenges we face, not just on aviation security. We work very closely, here in the UK and abroad, to ensure that those challenges of counter-radicalisation can be met head on and are working with communities on the ground.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that Egypt is one of the few beacons of hope in the Middle East? To allow its economy to be damaged as it is being damaged risks undermining President Sisi’s attempt to establish a tolerant, secular state where all religions are acceptable, and risks encouraging the Islamists who are still trying to regain power through the Muslim Brotherhood.

Let me assure my noble friend, as I have already intimated, that we, more than any other country, have been working very closely with the Egyptians on the ground and we continue to do so. Indeed, we have a permanent presence in Egypt, not just in Sharm but in other airports, to ensure first and foremost the safety and security of our own citizens, but equally working closely with the Egyptian authorities to ensure we can have the resumption of flights as soon as possible.

The problem over Sharm el-Sheikh has been going on for some time. Can the issue over security now be resolved quickly to our satisfaction, or are the differences of view between ourselves and the relevant Egyptian authorities fundamental and seemingly irreconcilable in the near future?

It was on 31 October last year—so just a tad over a year ago—when 224 lives were lost. The Government were right to take the view to suspend flights in light of the incident that occurred, but it is also right that we should await the formal reports of the investigations. However, we are not just taking a step back. More than any other nation, we are working on the ground together with the Egyptian authorities to ensure that we improve security and can resume flights, as soon as we are assured of the sustainable nature of their security arrangements.

My Lords, British tourists also go to the upper Nile valley and to the Sinai when visiting Egypt. There have been a number of incidents involving terrorists in both those areas over the years. Are the British Government working closely with the Egyptians to ensure that tourism can safely be encouraged in those regions as well?

The safety and security of our citizens is paramount in our mind. The noble Lord is quite right to point out other areas. The short answer to the noble Lord is yes. We work together with Egypt and other countries around the world to ensure that the international global connectivity that aviation provides is safe and secure for everyone.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the British Egyptian Society, which is a charity. In that capacity, I have been to Egypt several times this year. I fully endorse everything that has been said about the importance of the safety of British citizens, but the impact of the situation on some of the poorest and most destitute people, who would normally be engaged in the tourism industry, cannot be overestimated. It is an opening for those within Egypt who do not wish Egypt well and are fostering terrorism. Like the noble Lord, Lord Risby, I ask the Minister whether he will look afresh at this and do everything he can.

I assure the noble Baroness and the whole House that it is not just about looking at this afresh but about looking at it consistently to ensure the resumption of flights. Egypt is a friend. We want to ensure that we avert the challenges that it faces—issues of radicalisation were mentioned—and work with it across the piece, whether it is on aviation security or on countering radicalisation. It is our earnest belief that the impacts that the noble Baroness talked about can be alleviated at the earliest opportunity.