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Aviation: Large Electronic Device Ban

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what were the reasons for their decision to ban large electronic devices from aircraft cabins on flights from certain countries.

My Lords, the safety and security of the travelling public will always be our primary concern, and this Government will not hesitate in putting in place any measures that we believe are necessary, effective and proportionate. The whole House will recognise that we face a constantly evolving threat from terrorism and we must respond accordingly to ensure the protection of the public against those who would do us harm.

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that the security and safety of our people must be our priority, so I am concerned about the shortcomings of this decision. As we discovered so tragically here last week, terrorism can emerge from the most unlikely places, so why have only six countries been selected for this ban and how can it work if it does not apply to all flights, wherever their origin? I believe Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand have already decided not to implement a ban. How can it work across the world if not every country is co-operating?

My Lords, first, the events of last week were a stark reminder to us all of the nature of the challenge we face. Indeed, there was a Question on this very subject scheduled for that day, which we could not take. On the specifics of the noble Baroness’s question, how our European partners act is very much a matter for their respective Governments. We have acted in accordance with what we believe is the best interests of the United Kingdom, and Her Majesty’s Government will continue to act in that manner.

My noble friend asks a specific question on the new measures which have been implemented. I am sure that he will respect the fact that I cannot go into the specific detail behind the reasons why we have taken these measures. However, we keep all aviation security measures under constant review and have acted in accordance with that review. On the matter of laptops now being pressed into the hold, the CAA is also issuing specific advice to carriers dealing with that.

My Lords, the Minister must know that the success of this policy decision depends on airports in other countries. How confident is he about that?

I assure the noble Baroness— indeed, the whole House—that the Government have acted from the very top. There has been engagement at ministerial level. I have engaged with several host countries, as has the Secretary of State and other Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Foreign Affairs responsible for some of those countries. We have also dealt directly with the airlines from some of those host countries as well as British carriers, and I can assure all Members of your Lordships’ House that all are co-operating fully.

Can the Minister explain what is the point of this decision if, as will be the case, these devices can be flown to Brussels or Paris and then flown to London?

It will apply to transiting passengers as well, if the flight is scheduled for London. As I said in response to a previous question, if those flights are going to other European capitals from the countries that we have listed, that is very much a matter for those European Governments.

My Lords, a recent change in airline policy means that on many occasions, if there is a stopover flight, you cannot check your hold luggage through to your final destination. What is to stop someone concealing a laptop bomb in their hold luggage in one of the six countries affected by the ban and then, when they collect their bags at the stopover airport, taking that laptop bomb and putting it in their hand luggage in a country where the laptop ban does not apply?

If a person is coming through on transfer, the same rules will apply to them. Let me be absolutely clear that this is a measure that we have taken for six countries, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. Anyone transferring through to any UK airport will be subject to the same restrictions.

My Lords, using an iPhone, you can turn on your central heating from some distance. Surely the same could be done with a bomb. Why are not iPhones included in the ban?

As I already said, I will not comment on the specifics of the reasoning for this action. We monitor all issues of security and evolving threats and will continue to do so.

My Lords, the Minister did not deal with a previous question. I ask him for an assurance that he personally, as Aviation Minister, is satisfied with the reasons he has been given why the electronic devices in question present a threat if carried in the cabin of the aircraft but not if they are carried in the hold. Can he give us his personal assurance that he is satisfied with the reasons that he has been given, as Aviation Minister, why in one scenario there is a danger and in the other there is not? I will pursue another question that has already been asked, and ask for very firm assurances: can the Minister confirm that the Government are satisfied with the security arrangements and standards at the airports in the six countries concerned from which the inbound flights to the UK affected by the new arrangements are departing? Can he provide that unequivocal assurance?

First, on the noble Lord’s specific questions about providing assurances, our intelligence agencies, which are some of the best among the world, provide the advice on the evolving security threat that we monitor. As for giving a personal assurance as the Aviation Minister responsible, of course we look to our security and intelligence agencies. This is an evolving threat and we continue to monitor it and, based on that, we have put in additional security measures. On the second question, of course I can also give the noble Lord the assurance that on the additional security measures, as I have said, we are working specifically with the carriers, British and foreign. I have spoken to them directly myself. Officials are working with them and, equally and most importantly, we are working with those countries and airports that have been identified and continue to receive full co-operation to ensure that those embarking on a visit to those countries, and indeed returning from those countries, are safe and secure.

Does not the Minister realise that the implication of all the previous questions—including the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson—is that this policy will not work unless it becomes universal, because the public internationally have to be reassured that flying is going to be safe in future? These devices are getting more and more sophisticated and a universal ban will be necessary in the end, so that people can resume using their smartphones and tablets when they land but not while planes are in the air.

Let me again assure the noble Lord and the whole House that Her Majesty’s Government act in the best interests of our citizens. We do not take these issues lightly, as all previous Governments have not, and we have acted in exactly the same manner. We will continue to put the interests of the UK travelling public first. As to a universal ban, as I have said already this is a matter for individual Governments, but of course we talk to our European partners. This is very much a matter for each sovereign Government to make in accordance with how they see fit.

In view of what my noble friend has been saying about being satisfied with airport security in some of these countries, and given that Egypt has been put on that list, will he now accelerate the resumption of flights to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt by British carriers—German carriers are allowing it? It is wrecking the Egyptian tourist industry, which is doing huge damage to the Egyptian economy, when Egypt is one of the countries that is very much on our side and is trying to inject an element of real stability and prosperity into the Middle East.

My noble friend raises the specific issue of Sharm el-Sheikh. As he will be aware, Her Majesty’s Government—indeed, officials from my department—work specifically with the Egyptians on the ground. Yes, indeed, measures have been improved in Sharm el-Sheikh, but I remind him and your Lordships’ House that even though the tragic events on the Metrojet flight were well over a year and a half ago, in October 2015, we have not yet seen the final report from either the Egyptians or the Russians relating to that incident.