Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [HL]
That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, our transport sector continues to play a vital role in our economy and daily lives. Last year, UK airlines flew over 1.2 million flights carrying nearly 154 million passengers. Over 37 million vehicles were licensed for use on the roads in Great Britain. Rail passenger journeys have more than doubled in the last 20 years, with 1.7 billion journeys in the last year, while over 60 million passengers travelled by sea. We rely on all modes of transport for economic growth and to go about our day-to-day lives. It is important that whatever the mode of transport, passengers and staff are safe. We can be proud of the safety culture across our transport sector in recent years but we cannot be complacent. Safety and security must be our top priority.
The Government are determined to protect pilots, captains, drivers and their passengers. We will take action against those who threaten safety. That is why we are bringing forward a new law, strengthening the rules against those who shine lasers at aircraft while for the first time making it an offence to shine a laser at cars, trains and ships. This important legislation was originally proposed as part of last year’s Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, but that Bill fell when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the general election. We committed to reintroducing this measure and that is what we are doing.
There are legitimate uses for lasers: as alignment aids in the construction industry, by lecturers, and by astronomers who use them to point out stars at night. We are not legislating against the use of laser pointers but instead against their illegitimate use. Lasers can dazzle, distract or blind those in control of a vehicle, with serious and potentially even fatal consequences. The main problems with a laser attack are that it is sudden, very bright and distracting, and it can cause temporary visual disturbance for some time after the attack. In aviation, most events occur either on take-off and landing, or when aircraft such as police helicopters carry out civil safety duties.
Back in 2003, there had never been a reported case of a laser being shone at an aircraft. In 2004, there were six reported cases; by 2008, there were 200 and last year, there were over 1,200 reported incidents. Thankfully, no aircraft, train or road vehicle in this country has had an accident as a result of these dangerous and senseless acts. But it is all too easy to imagine the potential consequences of a pilot being blinded by a laser while trying to land a passenger jet, or of a train driver being dazzled from a bridge. This is predominantly a problem for aviation but incidents have been reported on other modes of transport. British Transport Police recorded 578 laser incidents on the railways between April 2011 and November 2017. We believe these incidents are underreported, as the recording of laser pointers outside aviation is not mandatory.
It is already an offence under the Air Navigation Order to shine a light at an aircraft to dazzle or distract a pilot, but the maximum penalty is just £2,500 and, as a summary offence, it does not give the police the powers they need to investigate effectively. Alternatively, offenders can be prosecuted under another Air Navigation Order offence of endangering an aircraft, with a maximum prison sentence of five years or a £5,000 fine. However, this poses other difficulties for successful prosecution as for a police officer on the ground and for the Crown Prosecution Service in court, it is very difficult to prove endangerment of an aircraft, so the power and penalties that come with this offence are not often used.
The Bill will make it an offence if a person shines or directs a laser beam towards a vehicle and the laser dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract, a person with control of the vehicle. It extends to all transport modes, and gives the police the powers needed to investigate and provide penalties that reflect the seriousness of the offence.
The offence will be a triable either way offence, which means that, depending on its seriousness, it can be tried as a summary offence or as an indictable offence. By making it a triable either way offence, it will engage powers for the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to enter property for the purposes of arrest and to search a property after an arrest. These powers are not currently available for the existing aviation offence under the Air Navigation Order. The maximum fine is unlimited and the maximum prison sentence will be five years.
The measure will extend to the whole United Kingdom. We have been working with the devolved Administrations, which support this new law. The measure included in this Bill is reserved in Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland rail and road are devolved matters, but we expect a legislative consent Motion to be brought forward once the Northern Ireland Assembly returns.
While this Bill specifically covers the risk posed by shining a laser at a person in control of a vehicle, the Government have this week announced new measures to tackle the sale of unsafe laser pointers, including strengthening safeguards to stop high-powered lasers entering the country. More than 150 incidents of eye injuries involving laser pointers have been reported since 2013, the vast majority involving children. In many of these cases, neither the children nor their parents have known the danger involved, and the Government will work to raise awareness of the risks associated with laser pointers.
In addition, the Government have pledged additional support to local authority ports and border teams to stop such lasers entering the UK. This includes increasing the resources available to ensure an immediate impact on rogue importers. The Government will also work with manufacturers and retailers to improve laser pointer labelling, to indicate that they must not be pointed at eyes or vehicles and must state the power level of the product.
The measures in the Bill have widespread support from the authorities and the transport industry. BALPA, the airline pilots union, has welcomed its reintroduction, saying that it is good news for transport safety. It has also been welcomed by a number of airlines, airports, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the National Police Air Service, the Military Aviation Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Rail Delivery Group, Public Health England and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. We have seen support from across the transport industry, which is often the victim of this senseless crime, from the police, who will enforce the law, and from medical professionals, who understand the real risks laser attacks can pose. All agree that action must be taken. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the Minister in discussing this matter. I start by declaring an interest as the president of BALPA, which has been campaigning on this issue for some years and is delighted that this House is now legislating to deal with what is a major challenge for civil aviation and other transport sectors, although civil aviation is perhaps the most affected. I am also delighted to be joined in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is the vice-president of BALPA. We work across the House on matters such as civil aviation safety. The noble Lord has worked tirelessly with BALPA to get where we are today, and I am very pleased to work with him on this.
The Government are to be congratulated on bringing forward this Bill and on taking action more generally, as the Minister explained, on the threat posed by the misuse of laser pointers. This action is very timely—even, perhaps, overdue—as we have known for some time that laser pointers are becoming ever more powerful and cheaper and are being used surprisingly often to dazzle drivers of vehicles. Misuse seems to have been increasing, with three to four attacks daily on UK-registered aircraft and 96 attacks on train drivers reported in the recent period.
Lasers can be powerful weapons in the wrong hands and, as the Minister said, they often get into the hands of children larking about and thinking it is fun. As the Bill proposes, lasers need tougher control and regulation and a strong message needs to be sent out that it is totally unacceptable to misuse lasers in the way that some people are doing. The new offence in the Bill should make prosecution easier and punishments more appropriate. Existing laws are limited in comparison.
I am pleased that the Bill is being complemented by other government action. I note that in the past few days the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has announced that it will clamp down on the importation of high-powered laser pointers. This too is a very welcome step and should help cut the number of laser attacks on vehicles. The proposed clampdown includes schemes to tighten border controls, give more expertise to local authorities and work with manufacturers and retailers to improve the labelling of laser pointers, to point out just how dangerous they can be if misused. Work is also going on with online retailers to try to make sure they use some discretion in their distribution methods. Raising parental awareness of the risks associated with laser pointers will also be very important. These are not toys for children to use to emulate the latest sci-fi blockbuster—they are highly dangerous, and can be as big a threat as a gun in the wrong hands.
There will be a chance in Committee to review some of the Bill’s details, especially whether the offence should perhaps be more about shining the laser itself and not require proof that people in charge of the vehicle were dazzled. That issue was debated in the other place and no doubt will receive some attention in Committee here. We need to examine this point, which led to some differences in the other place. There may not be any differences in this place yet—I am not sure—but I would certainly be interested at some stage in the Government’s view on that.
It is a general welcome from me for the Government’s moves at present on this subject. Now is the time to move forward quickly on this issue, to stop the misuses of laser pointers and to give this Bill a fair and supportive wind.
My Lords, I too declare an interest in this matter, as I am a lowly member of the British Airline Pilots Association under the noble Lord, Lord Monks, and I am also president of the British Association of Aviation Consultants, both of which of course support this measure. I spent quite a long time in my earlier years on the fringes of civil aviation. I therefore very much welcome the Bill. There is no doubt that the present legal arrangements have not proved satisfactory, and a number of cases have been brought which have failed or were not brought because it was decided that they were bound to fail.
I very much welcome the Bill from the point of view of civil aviation. I was going to say something about military aviation, but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, will no doubt refer to that more adequately than I can when he comes to speak in a moment. I hope the Bill will speedily arrive on the statute book and I very much support my noble friend Lady Sugg.
My Lords, I, too, fully support the thrust of this small Bill. As has been pointed out, there has been a considerable increase in laser-pointing at aircraft in recent years. No doubt the growing availability of laser devices online and elsewhere risks even greater exposure to such totally irresponsible and potentially dangerous use. Even a low-power beam can distract; a higher-powered device can blind. Videos demonstrating the efficacy of hand-held laser guns and rifles can be seen on YouTube. So I was pleased to learn yesterday of the government steps to clamp down on the sale and import of unsafe lasers, although a definition of unsafe—unless I missed it—was not actually mentioned.
It is right to criminalise all dangerous, distracting use of lasers against aircrew and to take this opportunity to extend the scope of the legislation to other types of vehicle and to protect the individuals in control or responsible for monitoring their safe operation.
In order to reduce or remove possible doubts about the coverage of the Bill, I have a few questions that, having given her notice, I hope the Minister will be able to deal with in her closing remarks. First, the Bill refers very specifically to the misuse of a laser beam. Some lasers are described as “pulse” or “burst” lasers, which may achieve higher powers than beam ones at similar distances. While the devices currently used are probably all of a beam type, is the Minister confident that both pulse and burst, or indeed any other variants of laser, are captured? This legislation just sticks to the one-word description “beam”. Would a laser gun or rifle be captured too? Might it make sense to use the phrase “laser device” or “laser pointer” in place of “laser beam” where it appears in this Bill to avoid any risk of creating a possible loophole in the legislation?
Secondly, Clause 1(8) refers just to a pilot of an aircraft. Larger aircraft will have flight deck crew members, not necessarily pilots, who as well as the pilot will have a role in monitoring the control of the aircraft. In the case of vessels, hovercraft and submarines, the involvement of the master or navigator as well as a pilot is included. As automation advances, even the use of the word “pilot” as a descriptor of the person in command and/or controlling an air vehicle might become outmoded. Might it therefore be better to use the word “individual” rather than the more restrictive word “pilot” in Clause 1(8) to cover the flight deck crew members or anyone else other than the pilot on board?
Thirdly, I seek to clarify the precise definitions of the start and end of a journey, as used in the Bill. For an air vehicle, this will include any ground movements—for example, taxiing to and from take-off and landing points, as described in the Explanatory Notes. What about an airliner stationary in its parking bay with its engines running? Opportunities for a member of the public in an airport terminal viewing area to use a handheld laser might exist at this point. Furthermore, is a road vehicle—presumably including motorbikes and other wheeled vehicles that use a motor to propel them—that is occupied, but not yet on the move, on its journey? I guess not, but it would be right to be sure.
Fourthly, I wonder whether for completeness horse-drawn carriages should be included. Should the risk to a coachman or driver be covered? An attempt to dazzle or distract the driver of a state coach with the monarch on board surely must be a crime.
The list of stakeholders mentioned in the pre-brief before the Recess included a variety of civil-aviation-related organisations—for example, BALPA, the CAA and the National Police Air Service. The MoD and the armed services were not. Has the MoD been consulted? The proposals deal only with the lasering of vehicles in the UK, but a service person, or a civilian subject to service discipline, might be chargeable under Section 42 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 for such a criminal offence when the Bill becomes law, even if committed overseas. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurances on these points of detail. Meanwhile, I support the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, particularly as he knows so much about the details of the military aspect.
I welcome the Bill and am pleased that it has been taken forward, but I presume it is a holding measure ahead of the business department’s investigation into the market for lasers that is also currently under way. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree that, once that process is concluded, she and her officials will re-examine this legislation and, where appropriate, introduce consolidation measures. The Bill, while welcome, is not sufficient in itself because it leaves a lot to chance. The illicit use of lasers is growing year on year and the dangers are becoming more apparent. I do not declare an interest as such but I am a private pilot and a former director of Newcastle airport, so I will confine my remarks to aviation and hope that that will be understood.
There are particular dangers in aviation when lasers are directed at aeroplanes. These threats can be both while the plane is in the air and when it is on the ground, either taxiing or stationary. UK airports are recording laser attacks daily, and the number is increasing. In 2016 alone, there were nearly 1,500 such matters reported. Although, luckily, most of these did not cause health issues, we have evidence from elsewhere in the world where these matters are also being considered of serious injury to some pilots—some cases of retina damage. But the real problem here is not so much that health danger, although it exists, but the distraction, often at a critical moment of ascent, descent or manoeuvre, which at least complicates the work of pilots and presents dangers.
The statistics are, to my knowledge and belief, if anything understating the situation. The reporting mechanisms for these occurrences are far from clear. Within airport control zones, both on the ground and in the air, a report can be made, responded to and passed to the appropriate authorities quickly, but away from such zones—although these are not the majority of incidents—regional air traffic controllers do not always know how to handle reports, and the precise location of lasers is extremely difficult to determine from the air. We also have a separate military control in any event, but detecting and detaining someone using a laser—as we know, a laser could be as small as a fountain pen—by determining where they are located is virtually impossible, unless the source can be accurately pinpointed in some way. I am delighted to hear that the police are to be given extra powers to search suspects or premises when they have the intelligence to get close to where these events have occurred, but finding the locations alone is extremely difficult.
We have it in our hands to limit the sale of lasers, especially those of greater power than 1 milliwatt. Unfortunately, many people have been selling lasers which are described as low power but which in truth have been much greater in power. Anything greater than that level is a danger. We can limit the sale of knives, fireworks and acid, so why not lasers?
I congratulate the Civil Aviation Authority and the airport operators for their approach to education. They hold an annual UK Airports Safety Week in which community leaders and young people are told about the threats and dangers relating to the operation of aviation in the UK. These have been a great contribution, so education plays a part. Indeed, as I mentioned, other countries are also being plagued in this way, but they have taken very stern action. The United States has a federal offence relating to the abuse of lasers. In France, there are clear limits on the power of devices. In Switzerland and Canada, there are strict rules on the use of lasers.
I must add that there is a need to be clear on definitions. Strongly focused torches or LED equipment can also distract if pointed at vehicles or aeroplanes. We heard earlier that lasers have been in existence for only a few years. Before that, we were plagued by real nuisances where torches were used to try to distract pilots landing at our airports. Even before that, airguns and other weapons, as it were, were used to disrupt aviation. There have always been risks.
I also want to mention that there are legitimate uses for strong lights. We need to be sure, in our Committee stage at least, that we bear in mind the air navigation processes regarding emergency lighting. As I am sure noble Lords will know, when an airport has a radio communication issue with a plane, or there is some disruption, it has to turn to the use of coloured lights. A steady green light in aviation means that it is clear to land at an airport. A steady red light means that a plane must continue circling and not land. I have to say that sometimes, if we are not careful, there could be confusion, bearing in mind that nearly all the lasers that have been used to disrupt aviation have been either a green or a red light. We have to be very careful. This would not affect large airports as much, but in the case of smaller fields or facilities, it could be a problem.
I very much welcome this legislation as a start, but we must understand that it has to be refined and updated on a review basis. I am afraid that I am old enough to remember the Dangerous Dogs Act. That Act has little to do with aviation, of course, but it bothered me enormously when I was a Home Office Minister. Everyone clamoured for something to be done after nasty incidents had occurred in which adults and children were attacked by dogs. Our good intentions were soon thwarted by the lack of flexibility and the prescriptive nature of the legislation. We failed to understand that the best intentions and determination to legislate must follow full due diligence, otherwise the practical outcomes add up to less than we need to alleviate the original problem.
My Lords, I also begin by declaring my interests as the vice-president of BALPA. The noble Lord, Lord Monks, said some very kind things earlier. I have known him now for over 30 years, and I do not think we have had a cross word in all that time, and we have often worked together.
I used to vote for the noble Lord.
He used to vote for me, indeed. Now, fortunately no one ever has to vote for me again.
I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this legislation. It is much appreciated and it is necessary. As a number of noble Lords have said, it is a work in progress. This will always be a work in progress as technology is constantly lapping around and moving us forward. Fortunately, speaking at this point in the debate, a lot of things have already been said, so I do not need to repeat them.
I say, first, that I welcome the statement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about clamping down on unsafe lasers. As has been mentioned, Public Health England recommends a limit of one milliwatt, and I believe that at some appropriate time, we should look at whether there can be some restriction on sales of lasers beyond this strength, particularly since quite a bit of evidence has been adduced and brought forward to show that lasers are often mislabelled; indeed, many people have no idea of the strength of the lasers they are using. They are now both powerful and cheap, and we need to have a look at the incorrect labelling of some of them.
I have also had drawn to my attention the fact that we tend to think of lasers affecting big jumbo jets flying into major airports. This is part of the story, but another part of it, as with drones, is the danger to helicopters. In 2016, 10 medical helicopters were the subject of laser attacks, as were a number of police helicopters. With helicopters, it is a much more dangerous situation in a way. It is the same with drones. A helicopter is much less protected and much less able to withstand an attack.
I have four questions that I should like to put to the Minister, not because I expect an answer tonight but because I would like her to look at them in developing and bringing this legislation further forward. The first is the definition of a journey as it applies to an aircraft. The contention is that a journey is best defined from the points of what is called “doors closed” to “doors open”. When a door is closed, the aircraft is officially on its way, whether it is being pushed back or using its own traction to get to where it takes off, or whether it is on its way down the runway—there are a number of instances, but the fact is that the doors are closed. That is repeated, in reverse of course, when it lands. It has not completed its journey until the doors are open; until then, it can always be moved and it can always be the subject of further developments. I should like the Minister to look at the definition of a journey as it applies to an aeroplane.
The second thing is the level of parental responsibility. We have to make sure that it is not a defence to say, “Oh, it was Jimmy who was shining it”. Obviously, you cannot say, “Last week, when he was not with you, your son shone a laser at someone and you’re responsible”, so there is a need to look at this. I do not have the solution, I am afraid, but I have the problem to address to the Minister of the extent to which underage persons can be made the liability of their guardians or parents.
The third area is the powers to find out whether people have a laser—in other words, what is known by the rather emotive term of “stop and search”. Clearly, this is a much wider issue, because you cannot have one law for lasers and another for knives or other offensive weapons. But it is something that needs to be considered. I point out that, with regard to airports, there is a separate security procedure whereby anything deemed dangerous can be removed at the security barrier. It would seem sensible that there should be the same level of security for people going on the roof or to viewing areas as there are for people passing through the airport itself. Can the Minister look at the extent to which security at airports could be bettered?
Finally, we have the question, again from aviation, of air traffic control towers, which are also part of the structure of flying but are clearly not vehicles. Can the Minister look at whether shining a laser at an air traffic control tower and air traffic controllers should in some way be brought within the Bill? At the moment, it applies only to moving vehicles which, as far as airports are concerned, does not include the air traffic control tower.
With those words, I close by welcoming the Bill and what is in it, realising that all these measures have to go forward and will be subject to revision as time moves on. I hope we are starting at least to tidy up one small and essential area of our safety in this area.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I welcome this Bill and the other announcements made yesterday by the Government. This is another example of an issue created by modern technology and, as is so often the case, the Government have struggled to keep up with the development of that technology. Once again, we certainly will support the Bill as far as it goes, but we believe that the Government need a more comprehensive approach to this problem. My thoughts chime very closely with those of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, on this issue.
This is certainly a substantial problem, and the Minister has outlined that problem in statistical terms and correctly identified that there is underreporting of these incidents—probably greater underreporting in the case of trains than planes because it is not yet an offence to shine a laser at a train. Although this is already an offence in the case of planes, I agree with other noble Lords that the penalties are not adequate, and that these offences are not easily dealt with by the police because of the need to determine intent. The existing fine is not adequate either. When you look at the potential to cause an accident involving hundreds of people, a maximum fine of £2,500 is certainly not adequate.
We welcome the wide meaning of the term “vehicle” in the Bill. It is easy to appreciate that a laser pointed directly at a motorist is just as likely to cause an accident as one pointed at an airplane pilot, although not one involving as many people. As the power of lasers increases and the beams widen, the problem will only get worse. In the case of planes, the standard response that the co-pilot can take over is not necessarily workable. I agree with the comment about control towers and whether they should be included in the Bill: in other words, should “vehicle” also include control towers?
Many thousands of these laser pointers are already on the market and in people’s homes. Many of them are mislabelled with no health and safety warnings and in many cases are owned by people who do not understand the dangers they pose. A friend told me recently that her grandchildren were given laser pens as Christmas stocking-filler gifts. Their immediate reaction was to point them at each other. Fortunately, their parents understood the dangers posed by those pens, and the well-meaning relative who gave them as gifts was gently given the information she needed to avoid making such a mistake again. However, there are over 150 recorded instances of eye damage caused by lasers, most of them to children. Earlier this week, I saw on television a young boy whose eye had been damaged by a laser pen. Lasers pose a danger not just to those in charge of vehicles but to people’s health.
I believe that the potential power of lasers nowadays means that it is time for us to consider treating them as offensive weapons, as BALPA suggests. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, drew an analogy with knives. We all own and use knives. However, we accept that clearly set-out criminal offences apply if they are carried or used for criminal, illegal or threatening purposes. The number of people who legitimately need to use or own a laser is very much smaller than those who need to own a knife—we all do—so the problem should be much easier to deal with. In fact, the number is so small that it is reasonable to suggest that those who need to own a laser should be licensed. This proposal was put forward as a policy option by the Government in their call for evidence last August, but was not included in yesterday’s announcement. Therefore, I ask the Minister: why was it not included, as I believe that licensing is used in some other countries?
I welcome yesterday’s announcement, as I said, as at least a start on a comprehensive approach, but it was a limited start. I say to the Minister that the market simply will not fix this issue. I rather suspect that when the Government say that they will support local authority teams to carry out increased checks at the border, they probably mean that they will provide some advice and not provide a big increase in money or resources, which is what they really need. I am also sceptical that working with manufacturers, as the Government suggest, and with retailers, will not deal effectively with the problem end of this market—and it is a market with a very long tail. To detect small, easily shipped and cheaply purchased lasers, many of them bought online, is a complex problem that needs a bold and comprehensive approach.
Last August, the Government also consulted on banning adverts for high-powered lasers and on the potential for a social media campaign. Can the Minister explain why these options are apparently not being pursued at this moment? What will the Government do to ensure that labelling is accurate and to penalise manufacturers and retailers who sell mislabelled products?
Finally, I take this opportunity to press the Minister again on the issue of drones, which are clearly not tackled by the Bill. There are so many similarities between lasers and drones. They are both modern technology with a legitimate use, which in the wrong hands can become dangerous weapons. They are uncontrolled modern technology at this time, and many hundreds of thousands of drones were sold as presents this Christmas, so the problem will multiply in the coming year. Yet the Government still have not brought forward legislation. They had a golden opportunity to link the control of drones with the control of lasers in the Bill, but unfortunately, that opportunity has been allowed to slip past. Laser control does not have to stand alone. As the Minister told us, originally it was part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, so why are drones not included now, and when can we expect to see some government action on them?
My Lords, we support the Bill, which provides for one specific means of addressing a growing problem, which has been raised on a number of occasions in this House. As has been said, that is the increased number of laser attacks on aircraft—more than 1,200 attacks per year compared with, I think, some half a dozen in 2004. A further aspect that makes action urgent is the rapidly increasing power of lasers.
Half the members of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, responding to a survey a few months ago, said that they had experienced a laser attack in the previous 12 months, and 15% said that they had experienced three or more. These incidents happen mainly during take-off and landing—the critical phases of a flight—and happen suddenly. They can cause temporary visual disturbance for some time after the attack and may result in instruments being obscured and night vision being disrupted. In some cases they can lead to permanent sight damage, and are a threat to those flying in aircraft so attacked, and thus also a threat to safety. As the power of lasers increases and the beams widen, BALPA has expressed concern that before long, there will be incidents of both pilots in an aircraft being temporarily incapacitated, leaving no one able to fly the aircraft. With single-pilot aircraft, including helicopters, there is of course no second pilot.
Such incidents are not confined to aircraft—they happen on our railways and to shipping—but it is only with regard to aviation that the recording of such incidents is, as I understand it, mandatory. There is currently an offence in respect of laser attacks under the Air Navigation Order but it does not give the police the powers, as the Bill will, to enter a property for the purposes of arrest or to search a person or property after an arrest; nor does the current maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine reflect the seriousness of such offences. However, I ask the Minister: will the Bill give the police the power to stop someone whom they suspect is carrying a laser without good reason? If the Bill does not do that, why did the Government come to the conclusion that such a power was not necessary, bearing in mind that a laser in the context of the offence under the Bill would presumably be regarded as akin to an offensive weapon?
The Bill, which extends to the whole of the United Kingdom following an agreement with the devolved Administrations, makes it an offence for a person to shine or direct a laser beam towards a vehicle which,
“dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract, a person”,
in control of that vehicle when “on a journey”. The word “vehicle” is intended to have a wide meaning, with the new offence covering all modes of transport—air, sea, road and rail. However, as has already been mentioned, there have been reports of laser beam attacks on control towers at airports, which one would have thought could have potentially serious consequences both for safety and for the staff affected. Does the Bill also cover laser beam attacks on control towers, and the staff monitoring or directing aircraft, and, if not, why not?
The offence will be a strict liability offence, with it not being necessary for the prosecution to prove intent to harm or endanger, but it will be necessary for the prosecution to prove that the elements of the new offence have been committed. However, can the Minister clarify what the prosecution will have to prove? Proving that a laser beam has been shone or directed towards a vehicle will presumably be insufficient, as there is also the requirement to show that it has dazzled or distracted or is likely to dazzle or distract a person in control of that vehicle.
In that regard, the statement in the Government’s response to the call for evidence on laser pointers that:
“The Bill creates a new offence of shining a laser at aircraft and other modes of transport”,
would not appear to be entirely correct. What will the prosecution have to do to prove the requirements in relation to dazzling or distracting a person in control of the vehicle, and how straightforward will it be for it to do so? If we are seeking to clamp down on the use of laser beams and pointers in this dangerous way, it will not help if we set a bar for the prosecution case which will be very difficult to prove. It would be helpful to have the Minister’s response to that point. It would also be helpful if she could say why the Government did not think that it would be sufficient simply to prove that a laser beam had been shone or directed towards a vehicle with a person in control, bearing in mind that there is a defence for a person so charged, to which I will now refer.
Clause 1(2) provides a defence for a person charged with the new offence, but the onus will be on the person so charged to provide sufficient evidence to show either that they had,
“a reasonable excuse for shining or directing the laser beam towards the vehicle”,
or that they did not intend to do so and,
“exercised all due diligence and took all reasonable precautions to avoid doing so”.
Can the Minister confirm, or otherwise, that the test against which such a defence would be determined would be on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond all reasonable doubt?
For the new offence in the Bill, the maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction is 12 months; on indictment it is five years and/or an unlimited fine. What considerations and reasons have led the Government to believe that these are the appropriate maximum terms of imprisonment on summary conviction and conviction on indictment, and how would they anticipate the level of an unlimited maximum fine being assessed and determined?
Do the Government envisage most cases coming to court being capable of being dealt with, if the case is proved or a guilty plea is entered, within the sentencing powers available to magistrates, or do they envisage most cases being dealt with at a higher court because the sentencing powers of magistrates will be insufficient for the seriousness of this kind of offence if the case is proved or a guilty plea is entered? Will lay magistrates have the power to sentence for up to 12 months on summary conviction for this new offence in the Bill?
The documentation we have received indicates the number of cases of laser incidents reported each year since 2010 to the Civil Aviation Authority. How many of these reported incidents have resulted in the alleged perpetrators being brought before a court in each year since 2010, and in how many of these cases has a conviction been secured?
What information, if any, do the Government have about the age of those committing these offences and the equipment they are using? It would appear that the answer might be very little, since the Government’s response to the call for evidence states:
“There is no meaningful data on who the perpetrators are, where they have obtained the laser pointers used, or what strength laser pointers they have used”.
If so, is this not a somewhat surprising deficiency, bearing in mind the length of time over which concerns have been expressed about the dangers and extent of laser beam attacks?
Under the terms of the new offence in the Bill, how many cases a year do the Government anticipate being brought before the courts? What do the Government anticipate will be the likely additional workload for our courts as a result? What impact on the number of laser offences being committed against aircraft and those in control of them, as well as more generally against vehicles, do the Government expect the measures in the Bill to have?
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill state:
“The creation of this new offence is intended to capture the use of laser pens and pointers, and other means of producing a laser beam”.
Does the reference to “other means” of producing a laser beam also include the use of a drone to carry and project a laser beam? In view of this reference, is there any level of laser beam that would be considered to lack the power to enable an offence under the Bill to be committed by using it, taking into account the reference in the offence to “dazzle or distract”? If so, what is that level?
Clause 1(1)(a) states that an offence is committed if,
“the person shines or directs a laser beam towards a vehicle which is on a journey”.
This issue has already been raised, but what is the definition of “on a journey”, which will apply to all forms of transport covered by the Bill? For example, does it include an aircraft, ship, car or bus that has not yet moved but has a person sitting at the controls who is dazzled or distracted by a laser beam? If it does cover this situation, why are the words “on a journey” necessary? If the Bill does not cover such a situation, why not, bearing in mind the potential serious damage that can be done by a laser beam to the sight of the person in control of the vehicle, irrespective of whether it is actually moving or “on a journey” at the time?
The penalties on summary conviction differ slightly between England and Wales and Scotland. If an offence takes place close to the border between England and Scotland, where is the offence deemed to have taken place? Is it deemed to have occurred where the person shining or directing the laser beam was located at the time the offence was committed, which could be in England, or is it deemed to have taken place where the person with control of the vehicle was dazzled or distracted, which could be a short distance away over the border in Scotland?
I referred earlier to the increasing power of lasers. I appreciate that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy conducted a consultation on the laser market and potential uses for laser pointers last autumn, and I thank the Minister for making available the Government response to that call for evidence.
The response states that most of the injuries come not from laser pointers bought on the UK high street but from those purchased primarily online or overseas, and that most higher-strength lasers are bought from manufacturers or suppliers based outside the United Kingdom. In addition, a significant number of these are being supplied without the correct or appropriate information, classification or output marking, and are of a class of laser that should not be sold to the public. Whether the actions the Government now intend to take in the light of the call for evidence will prove adequate will no doubt be the subject of further debate.
The response also states:
“Government will take action to improve frequency and resourcing of enforcement activities at ports and borders with the aim of improving safety of the market for laser pointers and increasing enforcement activities against imports of dangerous high powered laser pointers”.
I have to say that that response is strong on generalities and weak on specifics. What does it mean in terms of specific targets or objectives, resources being made available or practices being changed? Frankly, the £100,000 total grant to local authorities referred to in the Government’s response will not solve the problem.
We seem unable to stop people being illegally trafficked into this country in the back of lorries through our inadequately staffed major border entry points, so why do the Government think we should accept that this performance will improve considerably in respect of imports of dangerous high-powered laser pointers?
The Government already appear to have rejected the option of a licensing system restricting the purchase and ownership of high-powered laser pointers, on the grounds that it would risk increasing the rates of laser attacks. No doubt this, too, will be the subject of further debate, but fortunately we do not apply that particular argument in relation to gun licensing. The significant increase in the number of laser attacks has occurred not under a system where there is licensing, but under a system where there is not.
I conclude by reiterating our support for the Bill, as far as it goes, given that the current offences and sentences in respect of laser attacks are inadequate in the current situation. Whether the actions the Government said in their response to the call for evidence that they intend to take are sufficient, though, is another matter.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today and for their broad support for these measures. I shall aim to answer as many questions as I can. If I am not able to address every issue, I will follow up in writing.
On the types of lasers, we have not defined lasers in the Bill because our legal advice is that the term would be understood and there would not be difficulty in prosecuting based on whether or not a light source was a laser. The offence would cover all forms of lasers, including laser pens, pointers and laser guns; and the term “beam” would cover laser pulses and bursts, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, mentioned.
The offence specifically covers lasers rather than any light source because of the risk of inadvertently catching normal and acceptable light sources, such as car headlights, which might dazzle and distract the pilot or the driver of another vehicle. Lasers are the predominant risk. The police have not raised the same concern in relation to other lights, such as strobe lights, as they have with lasers.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked whether Clause 1(8) should refer to an individual rather than a pilot. We have sought to capture those persons who are in control of the vehicle, and in the case of an aircraft these will be the pilots. We specifically refer to the pilots monitoring the control of the aircraft to capture co-pilots. When a laser beam is shone or directed at an aircraft, the light often tends to refract and fill the cockpit with light, so it is difficult to imagine another member of the crew being dazzled or distracted but not the pilots.
Many noble Lords raised the definition of a journey. Similar concerns were raised during the Committee stage of the then Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which referred to “flights” for aviation rather than “journeys”. We have taken on board those concerns and amended the Bill to ensure that all parts of the journeys are covered. “Journey” will bear its natural meaning. It is intended to start when the vehicle is ready to commence its journey and end when it comes to a final stop at its destination. That includes taxiing in the case of an aircraft and for all vehicles will cover temporary stops along the way such as stops at train stations, bus stops, traffic lights or, indeed, when waiting to take off.
For clarification, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “journey” as the act of travelling from one place to another. The point made by several noble Lords, including my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig, and the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Rosser, is that this is still a little vague in regard to, for example, a flying lesson, which starts in one place and returns to the same place; helicopter pilots, who initially only go up and come back down again; or even a driving lesson, which departs and returns to the same place. Would the Minister comment further on that?
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Trying to define all the different types of journey which may take place is complicated. As I say, our advice is that “journey” is the best way to describe it, but I will take the noble Lord’s comments away and consider them ahead of the Committee stage.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also mentioned horse-drawn carriages, which I am afraid will not be covered by the Bill. We have not seen any evidence of a problem, so horse-riders will not be covered either. We work closely with the British Horse Society and other organisations but, as I say, they have not raised any safety concerns. However, we will keep the issue under review and perhaps follow it up with them.
We have consulted carefully with the Ministry of Defence on the Bill and indeed with the Military Aviation Authority. The offence will cover both military and civilian vehicles, and the Bill has received support from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. We will continue to work closely with the MoD and the MAA, some of whose representatives are also members of the UK Laser Working Group, which meets regularly.
On licensing and import controls, as I mentioned in my earlier speech, we have committed to providing additional support for enforcement activities around the import of lasers. We are working to deliver more effective labelling and to promote public awareness. However, after considering the evidence, we do not intend to introduce a licensing regime.
What precisely does the Minister mean by “support for local authorities”? That is the key thing. Support can mean providing advice and information or it can be firm, practical help.
We are working with local authority ports and borders teams to advise them on prioritising the checking of imports. We have allocated a grant of £100,000, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned, to help them have an immediate and targeted impact. We are also working with online retailers and importers.
Although I do not want to state the obvious, could I ask the Minister to confirm that the £100,000 is the sum in total across all local authorities? It is not £100,000 for each local authority involved in this activity.
Yes, I can confirm that it is a total of £100,000. Perhaps I will get some more detail on exactly what work the department is doing with local authorities to help them deal with this issue.
On the licensing regime, the evidence we gathered in our call for evidence did not indicate that a ban or a licensing regime would have a positive impact on public safety. We believe that introducing legislation to license the supply and purchase of high-powered lasers would not tackle illegal imports that are purchased online or indeed the many people purchasing them while on holiday. We have looked at international examples. Australia and New Zealand have taken legislative action to impose a ban or a strict licensing system, but that did not actually have a positive effect on reducing the number of these laser incidents.
We do not think that we should classify laser pointers as defensive weapons. I understand the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, that only a few people use lasers in a legitimate way, but we think that it would penalise them. However, if a pointer is adapted for use to cause injury or if it is intended to be used to do so, it would then be classified as an offensive weapon.
My noble friend Lord Balfe raised the issue of children who commit this offence and the responsibility of their parents. Obviously, children under 10 years of age cannot be charged with committing an offence, but other steps can be taken such as a local child curfew or a child safety order. Of course, children aged between 10 and 17 can be arrested and taken to court. However, I understand the point that my noble friend has made and I will discuss it with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.
Air traffic control towers were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Balfe, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The Bill does not currently cover air traffic control towers, but it is an interesting point. I am aware of a number of incidents where lasers have been shone at fixed installations. Such installations are often located in controlled areas so there is less scope to shine a laser, but we can certainly consider whether air traffic control towers should be included in the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Kirkhope asked about regional air traffic control and how best to deal with these reports, in particular as regards general aviation. The CAA has published a safety notice on laser attacks which provides guidance for air traffic controllers, principally to inform the police immediately and pass on all relevant information. However, obviously I understand that in general aviation the practice is perhaps not as well known as it should be. We will discuss the matter with the CAA.
A number of noble Lords raised the regulation of certain strengths of lasers. It might be helpful to say a few words on the current situation on the classification of lasers in the market. Lasers sold in the UK are classified in accordance with the current British standard on laser safety, which sets out eight classes of laser products. The classification scheme for lasers indicates the potential risks of adverse health effects. The higher the class number, the greater the radiation hazards posed by the laser. Under the General Product Safety Regulations, only laser pointers considered safe for general use should be made available to the public through general sale. The higher classes 3 and 4 are not suitable for sale to consumers. Laser pointers above 1 milliwatt are generally accepted to have limited specialist uses and can be removed from the market. But obviously, as I said, consumers purchase products directly via the internet and while overseas on holiday, which is of course more difficult to control.
My noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned stop and search and whether the police need these powers. It is worth noting that the police already have the power to stop and search for laser pointers where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the pointer is intended to cause injury. That is because the laser would then be deemed an offensive weapon. The Government are clear that the power of stop and search, when used correctly, is vital in the fight against crime, but the Home Office is currently conducting a review to achieve greater transparency on this. While this work takes place, it would not be appropriate to consult on extending the power of stop and search to cover lasers, but my department, together with the Home Office, will consider consulting on proposals to apply the power of stop and search to laser pointers as soon as that review is concluded, which I expect to be later this year.
On sentencing, five years is the maximum jail term, as I said, and would be imposed in only the most serious cases, but we believe it is important to have an effective deterrent for these sorts of offences. As I explained, it will be a triable either way offence. It will be up to the courts to decide which court should hear each case, dependent on the seriousness. For a summary offence tried in the magistrates’ court, the maximum imprisonment will be restricted to six months in England and Wales or 12 months when Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act is commenced.
On the point from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on where the case would be tried if the offence is done across a border—which, I must admit, is something I had not considered—I imagine it will be where the person holding the laser has his feet placed, as that is where the offence would be committed. I will certainly take that back to clarify. He also asked how many people had been found guilty of committing this offence. In 2016 it was 10 and in 2015 it was 16. I will send the noble Lord the full figures I have available.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned drones. As I said at the end of November, it is our intention to bring forward drone legislation in the spring of this year. That is still our intention. I understand the importance of the issue and the desire to act quickly on this, but we have decided to separate the treatment of drones from that of lasers as they present different challenges. I look forward to bringing forward drones legislation as quickly as possible.
As the noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned, I am lucky enough to have both the president and the vice-president—and, indeed, lowly members—of BALPA in your Lordships’ House, so I want to take this opportunity to thank BALPA for its engagement with my department on this and many other issues that face the aviation sector. I hope that I have addressed all the issues raised. If not, as I said, I will follow them up in writing.
We believe that the existing laws are not strong enough, with the police unable properly to investigate and prosecute such incidents. The police lack powers to search the homes of suspects. Even when a conviction is secured, the maximum penalty for dazzling or distraction is only £2,500, and there is no specific law against shining a laser at a ship or at motorists at the wheel. This new offence will act as a deterrent to these dangerous incidents happening in the first place, but if they do occur, the proposals will help the police bring the offenders to justice.
The safety and security of the travelling public must always be a top priority for the Government. With more than 1,000 attacks on aircraft reported each year, as well as those on other modes of transport, we have a duty to act. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 7.05 pm.