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Gatwick Airport

Volume 794: debated on Thursday 20 December 2018

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make a statement on the disruption at Gatwick airport caused by drone activity.

My Lords, the disruption caused by these drones is extensive, and it is an ongoing operation. We are in close contact with Gatwick Airport as it works with the police to resolve the situation safely and as quickly as possible. These drones have been flown illegally and anyone endangering an aircraft could face up to five years in jail.

My Lords, this incident has illustrated the frightening ease with which drone users can inflict massive damage on our safety, our security and our economy. It is Christmas, and thousands more drones will find their way as gifts into the hands of untrained, unregistered users. Will the Minister commit to introducing proper, stringent controls on drones early in 2019? I realise that the Government are very busy with Brexit, but this incident illustrates the importance of other aspects of our national life. Do police consider this incident to be an act of terror or simply one of criminal irresponsibility? Whichever of those it is, all airports are clearly now at risk. What steps are being taken to prevent a repeat, copycat attack?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that we need to introduce new laws to ensure that drones are used safely and responsibly. Earlier this year, we introduced a law which makes it illegal to fly a drone within a kilometre of an airport and above 400 feet. In November next year, we will introduce a registration system which includes a mandatory safety check before a person can fly a drone. As I said, these drones are being operated illegally. I am afraid that I am not able to give a further comment. It seems that the drones are being used intentionally to disrupt the airport, but, as I said, this is an ongoing investigation.

My Lords, I think that it is a Front Bench response on an Urgent Question.

I am dissatisfied by the Minister’s responses. I am sure that I am not the only noble Lord to declare an interest in Christmas flights from Gatwick, but there are two sets of issues: the longer-term issues referred to and the emergency issues for today. This incident is causing disruption and distress for thousands, with more than 100,000 people stranded.

Given the length of time that this incident has been going on and the scale of the disruption, it is clear that it has not been caused by a teenager playing with an early Christmas present from their bedroom. It is obviously malicious. The Government have to address serious issues.

The police say that they have 20 units looking for the operator or operators. Do they have the expertise and equipment? They now say that they are launching a campaign for information. Have the Government consulted or engaged our military, who surely have a higher grade of technology for dealing with drones? Which Ministers are monitoring the situation and co-ordinating the emergency response, and who will they report back to? I remember the days when Prime Ministers would have had a COBRA meeting overnight to co-ordinate ministerial responses.

Given their urgency, I would expect the Minister to have investigated these issues and to have come back to the House today with an answer. If she cannot give an answer now, will she assure the House that she will return within the hour to do so?

My Lords, as I said, this is an ongoing operation. Sussex Police are in the lead and have officers on the ground. They are doing everything they can to locate the drone and its operators. All relevant parts of government, including the Department for Transport, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence are involved in the response, and we are doing everything we can. As I said, it is an ongoing police investigation and I am afraid that I am not able to confirm the details at this time.

My Lords, I declare an interest, first, as a pilot but also as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation’s investigation into airspace in the UK. We are very concerned with the incursion into airspace by drones. While I am reassured by my noble friend’s remarks, we feel that it is urgent that these matters be dealt with and that full accountability for drone operators and those who sell drones to the public is now implemented.

My Lords, as I explained, we changed the law earlier this year, bringing in an exclusion zone around airports. We are working with manufactures and retailers to ensure that the new rules are communicated to those who purchase drones. From November next year, people will need to register their drone and take an online safety test. We have also recently consulted on extending police powers and will make an announcement on next steps shortly.

My Lords, two years ago, on 28 February 2017, I raised the existence of signal jamming equipment operational at a distance of 2,000 feet. In reply the then Minister for transport said he would take the issue up with officials, saying:

“We will be raising his specific point with manufacturers”.—[Official Report, 28/2/2017; col. 709.]

What happened? Was it raised with officials? Was it raised with manufacturers and, if so, what were the results of those conversations?

My Lords, as I say, we are working closely with manufacturers on counterdrone technology. That was also something we spoke about in our consultation; we are working closely with the Home Office on both the technological side of counterdrone technology and the physical side.

My Lords, the Minister keeps saying that this is an ongoing police operation. Is there any reason why we cannot be updated this afternoon? There are a large number of passengers queueing at Gatwick Airport and I think it is right and proper that not only the public but Parliament has information about what is going on. Will she come back and give us some information later?

My Lords, as I said, this is an ongoing police operation and we will have to see how that develops through the day. We encourage all passengers who are due to travel from Gatwick Airport to check with their airlines before they go to the airport and also to look at the Gatwick Airport website where the most up-to-date information will be provided.

My Lords, what requirements are placed on airports to be ready for these circumstances? Will the Minister be checking that other airports are prepared to meet these circumstances should they arise?

My Lords, of course we work carefully with airports on all their operational contingency plans. The priority on that is safety and as I said, once this event is closed the police will be investigating fully. Of course, we will be looking at our response and working with airports to avoid such an incident in the future.

My Lords, the House is of course grateful to the noble Baroness for the rather complacent reply she has given so far. However, it is a fact that repeatedly in this House, as my noble friend said, for more than two years—for about the last five years, in fact—people have been raising concerns about drones and the Government have repeatedly dragged their feet. Why, at the earliest stage, were technical specifications not introduced and required of all drones brought into this country or built in this country, which would have enabled them to be disabled and brought safely to the ground? That technology is available and had it been introduced at the beginning it would have made life a lot easier. The penalties introduced in the middle of this year are quite clearly inadequate, as we have already heard from the noble Lord opposite. Why do the Government persistently drag their feet on these issues?

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that I am in no way complacent about this issue: we have been working incredibly hard on it all morning. We have also taken clear action this year, introducing exclusion zones and bringing in laws to ensure that drones are not flown above 400 feet. As I said, we have been consulting on extending police powers and will shortly announce how we will do that.

My Lords, I think most people will be absolutely astonished that we are unable to locate the drone operators or remove the drones. Can the Minister say what rehearsals were carried out for such a drone incursion?

My Lords, as I said, the police are working on this at the moment. They are doing all they can to search for the operators and resolve the situation safely. I fear that I do not have details for the noble Lord on specific rehearsals for this but I will look into that and write to him.

My Lords, I declare a personal interest: my daughter is stuck in Berlin Airport at this moment, like many thousands. I do not think that the Minister has replied to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who asked a very specific question about the equipment which can disable these drones and bring them back to where they came from. These have been tested at Gatwick. Has she not got any information on the results of those tests?

My Lords, technology is rapidly advancing in this area. That is absolutely something that we are looking at. As I said, part of the consultation we did earlier this year was on counterdrone technology and we will be announcing our next steps on that very soon.

My Lords, our military and GCHQ have also developed techniques to identify the frequency very rapidly and either jam it or take control of the drone and land it. Is this ability being given more broadly to various airports? How is this being done? Clearly, we have not taken any action for a number of years to try to resolve this issue.

My Lords, as I said, all relevant parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence, are working on this issue today to try to resolve it as quickly as possible. We are working on the new technology that is available to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. It is not acceptable that passengers have faced such disruption ahead of Christmas and we are doing all we can to resolve it as quickly as possible.