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General Aviation (Persons on Board, Flight Information and Civil Penalties) Regulations 2024

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the General Aviation (Persons on Board, Flight Information and Civil Penalties) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, the purpose of these regulations, laid under paragraphs 27BA and 27BB(6) of Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 and Section 32B(6)(b) of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, is to require owners, agents or captains of international general aviation flights to submit information about the flight and the persons on board online and in advance of the flight. General aviation flights are those that do not operate to schedule. They include large commercially operated business jets, air taxis and private pilots in light aircraft. The regulations also amend the Passenger, Crew and Service Information (Civil Penalties) Regulations 2015 and make a failure to comply with the requirements of the new regulations liable to a civil penalty of up to £10,000.

The safety and security of our citizens is the Government’s top priority. We are committed to implementing resilient border security processes for all modes of international transport for counterterrorism, policing and immigration purposes. A key part of our border strategy is the ability to know who is travelling or intending to travel to and from the UK’s border before they arrive or depart. Through the provision of advance passenger information, known as API, our border officers can quickly determine who does and does not pose a threat to the UK or to UK interests and, importantly, can prevent travel in accordance with the authority to carry scheme 2023.

All airlines making scheduled commercial international flights to and from the UK, other than for some flights within the common travel area, are required to provide API for all individuals on board their aircraft. Additionally, all passengers arriving on scheduled international flights are subject to full passport control checks at the border. Individuals arriving in the UK or leaving the UK on international general aviation flights are not all subject to the same checks. Many international general aviation flights operate out of private airfields and landing strips where there is no permanent border control or police presence. This means that a requirement to provide API forms a key part of our approach to managing international general aviation flights and individuals on board.

Those operating international general aviation flights are currently required to provide data in advance of departure for customs purposes, and on some routes for security purposes, but they are not currently required to provide the information electronically in a way that enables law enforcement to process it efficiently. In order to effectively assess the risk posed by individuals on board international general aviation flights, our border control authorities need not only to know who is intending to travel in advance of their journey to or from the UK commencing but to receive the information in a way that supports effective processing to clear individuals posing no concerns and to focus on subjects of interest.

Submission of flight information, online and in advance, will allow Border Force and other law enforcement authorities to analyse and quantify the extent of the potential threat and level of risk. It will enhance automated checking and intelligence-led decision-making to improve the effectiveness with which resources are deployed to meet flights.

Last April, the Home Office undertook an eight-week consultation, targeted at the general aviation sector, on regulations to require information about general aviation flights and persons on board to be submitted electronically in a manner that enables automated watchlisting. Respondents to the consultation understood the reasons for doing this, and most were supportive of the introduction of the regulations.

To be clear, these regulations will not require the provision of new information over and above what is already required. They simply specify the manner in which the information must be supplied: it must be provided online. More than 50% of submissions are already made electronically and the regulations will have no impact on them. There will be a small impact for pilots and operators who submit their flight information via email or even fax. Border Force has a free-to-use web service, known as “Submit a GAR”, hosted on GOV.UK, which general aviation owners, agents or captains can use to comply with these regulations. For individuals arriving and departing in private aircraft, these requirements reflect and support the Government’s intention for a fully digitised border system providing greater ability to know and have control over who is travelling to, entering and leaving the UK.

We recognise the significant economic benefit the general aviation sector provides to the country and that the majority of owners, agents and captains are making information available to the border authorities and the police about their international flights and the persons on board. The Government believe that these changes are sufficiently balanced with the needs of border security and law enforcement. It is of paramount importance that information about persons on board is received in a way that enables automated border checks and pre-departure action to be taken. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a private pilot and an aircraft owner and operator. I welcome the regulations that the Minister has outlined. Looking at the consultation response document that was published, it seems that very few issues caused any sort of concern, and that this comes under “common sense”. I emphasise that the general aviation sector is acutely aware of the privileges that it enjoys and hence is a highly law-abiding section of the community that is keen to play its role in the policing of our borders.

There is broad support for the regulations, which are not hugely different from those currently in force, as far as I can see. Pilots are used to completing a general aviation declaration, which has not caused any problems. The systems that are used are so much better than they were previously. Technology has really helped. Commercially available applications have a strong interface with flight planning systems. I trust that the Minister can reassure the Committee that this will be the case for the new general aviation declaration format—that commercially available apps will be able to interact successfully and seamlessly.

I have only one substantive question for the Minister and I am sure I know the answer, but none the less it would be reassuring to have it from him. The regulations are cast, as they should be, around the expected arrival location. As we know, aviation, particularly general aviation, can be affected by weather, and we do not want to put in place any regulations that create a perverse incentive to carry on—not to turn back or divert to alternative fields. There can also be technical problems with the aircraft. I would like my noble friend the Minister’s reassurance that nothing in these regulations will affect the ability of the pilot or captain of the aircraft to divert for genuine safety-related reasons, and that we are not baking in any perverse incentive. I know that the Government have consulted widely, and I am quite sure that it will not be the case. None the less, this is a good opportunity for the Minister to make that point.

My Lords, these are sensible regulations, but they raise a significant number of questions, including one that the Minister talked about at the outset: moving online from fax. I wonder, do we still have people doing this on the telephone or even by post? Moving into the modern age seems critical to me.

My first question is about the form, which I have just printed out. It is substantially more information than I would give as a passport holder on a regular airline when I go outside the United Kingdom. I presume, but perhaps the Minister can clarify, that that is because of the ability of major airlines to get instant information back from the system. I wonder whether the level of information now available to anybody online is still available to people in this sector, in which case it would shorten the whole form-filling regime.

I will come back to form-filling in just a moment, but the real question that struck me in reading the regulations and information provided to the general aviation sector was the relationship between Border Force’s work and that of the CAA. It is clear to me that flights can be detected and are being tracked by those who control our airspace. I am not certain whether that is because every major airline has transponders, which then indicate exactly where those aircraft are. I do not think that is the case with the general aviation sector but, where it is, that will enable the Civil Aviation Authority to know where these aeroplanes are in the sky and will help detection of flights not designed to land in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the Minister can tell us a little about the relationship between the two.

The second issue is about awareness raising in the sector. I went online to see whether I could join an event, simply to find out whether and how it was taking place. It said on the Home Office website that 20,000 people had been hosted for an awareness event. That sounds to me an extremely high number. If that is the case, that is really quite substantial, but there may perhaps be a fault in the way this information is recorded. So how many people have engaged in the events that have taken place to raise awareness of this change, where presumably they are advised not to use post, fax, telephone or emails but to use the online system?

Paragraph 7.9 of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about 10% of non-compliant people. Can the Minister give a figure for that? That would help me with the first figure about awareness raising and give a sense of the size of the sector we are talking about.

Clearly, these regulations are simply changing the method by which this information is provided, but you have to provide it when you leave and when you come back. Presumably, for the other way around, people in this sector in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and so on are having to do exactly the same thing for us. Are we matching their requirements? In other words, it would seem sensible that, if I were required to provide this information to the UK, I would need to provide that information to France as well. Sharing the data, which I am coming to, would make life a lot easier for people if there were simplification of those procedures.

Finally, I have two technical questions. I note that ICAO or IATA-designated airports or airstrips are permitted to use only the online version. If I have that wrong, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me, but why is that the case? If it is the case, as I read it in the information pack, it seems to me that we are not capturing all the small airstrips in this country.

My final question is about the requirement to record passport information if you fly to the Republic of Ireland. I have gone across to Ireland, our next-door neighbour, quite frequently, and I often use my parliamentary pass to get across the Irish Sea both ways. If I cannot use it to go to Ireland in the general aviation sector, I would like to know why. As I understand it, that applies to the whole of the common travel area.

I would be grateful if the Minister could answer those questions, but in general terms these regulations seem sensible.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Goschen about the importance of this SI. Unlike him, I am not a pilot but, like him, I am a former Transport Minister. I will raise two issues, both touched on tangentially by the noble Lord, Lord German.

The first is the general issue of penalties and enforcement. After yesterday’s long debate, there is increased emphasis on security of the borders and, with all parties agreed that we need to do something about the boats, I think there will be an incentive to look to general aviation to bring more illegal immigrants into the country. Some 400 airfields have no police, customs and excise or immigration presence, so there is a general issue about enforcement and penalties.

The civil penalty for non-compliance under paragraph 2.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum is £10,000. I assume that there are also other penalties available for someone who illegally brings in somebody, so on what basis has that figure been arrived at? Has the existing figure simply been carried forward, or does it line up with some other measurement?

Secondly, on Northern Ireland, Regulation 2 says:

“This regulation applies to an aircraft which … is expected to arrive in the United Kingdom, or … is expected to leave the United Kingdom”.

I assume that internal flights are excluded, as paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to “124,000 international GA flights”, so I assume that there is some other legislation that qualifies Regulation 2 and that the regulation applies only to an aircraft that is arriving in the UK from outside the UK.

Like the noble Lord, Lord German, I downloaded the latest guidance, General Aviation Guidance—January 2024, and came across this under paragraph 6 on customs requirements when travelling to the UK:

“Personal Allowances … If you’re travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, you do not need to declare your goods if both of the following apply … you’re a UK resident … you have already paid both VAT and excise duty … on the goods in Great Britain”.

However, it goes on:

“You may need to declare your goods if any of the following apply … you’re not a UK resident … you have alcohol or tobacco over your allowances … you have goods worth more than £390”.

As I understand it, someone who arrives in this country from America, for example, and then goes to Northern Ireland has to declare his goods because he is not a UK resident. However, the next paragraph says:

“If you’re travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain … you do not have to declare any goods”.

There seems to be a bit of a mismatch in the requirements of what you have to do if travelling from here to Northern Ireland or coming back the other way.

I do not expect my noble friend to have the answer at his fingertips, but it is worth posing the question. If I am a pilot taking an American citizen on general aviation to Northern Ireland, what is my obligation to cross-question him about what he has in his luggage, and what penalties will I be exposed to if, by any chance, I get it wrong?

My Lords, these are generally sensible regulations. There have been some very interesting points. The contribution from the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, about being sensible—he flies in and out of these sorts of airfields—is useful to our consideration. There were also some interesting points from the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord German, particularly on Northern Ireland, which is always a complicating factor with respect to regulations, not least because people could land in Dublin and because of the interaction with the common travel area, et cetera. There are some interesting questions for the Minister.

It is worth placing on record for people who read our deliberations quite how serious an issue this is and how welcome it is that the Government are seeking to tighten it up. The noble Lord, Lord Young, alluded to that. Some 400 airfields currently operate 124,000 general aviation flights. That is a huge number of flights. I appreciate that many will be individuals, but it is still a significant number. Although we hear that the majority conform with the Government’s current regulations, 10% do not. It is welcome that the Government say quite categorically that none of these various airfields can be policed routinely—I think that is the word the Government used—by Border Force officials or police officers. Again, you do not have to be an intelligence expert to realise that there is potentially a real problem here, so the Government’s attempt to tighten this up through the requirement for people to submit information online is a welcome step forward.

The Minister very helpfully answered a couple of questions for me prior to this debate. I know it is not the subject of the SI, but I wonder whether the Government are considering this issue with respect to seaports. I take the point about Dover or Holyhead, but international shipping must come in and out of numerous other ports. If we are talking about the necessity of borders, I wonder whether the Government are giving any consideration to whether any changes are needed with respect to that. I appreciate that is outside the scope of these regulations, but I wanted to ask the Minister that. Perhaps he could answer by letter.

There is clearly a major issue here that the Government need to deal with. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young, is especially pertinent: how will all this new information be monitored and enforced? How can we be sure that the Government will be able to do this effectively? If this information is coming into Border Force, it is really important that it can be collected and utilised. If I have read the regulations right, the information has to be provided not 48 hours before the flight but up to two hours before. How were those figures arrived at? I ask because if, two hours before, something arrives into Border Force and it is a problem, is that sufficient time to respond? I do not know. It clearly has not been plucked out of thin air, so I wondered whether the Minister could say something about how the figures of 48 and two were arrived at.

On the territorial extent, if this is obvious then I apologise, but I think it is worth putting on record that the regulations talk about the United Kingdom. Are the Channel Islands are added on, or not? Are Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, subject to these regulations, or not?

Lastly, without repeating the questions from the noble Lords, Lord German and Lord Young, and the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, military flights are clearly excluded under Regulation 3. Military personnel are exempted; I understand that and obviously agree with it. Can the Minister say something about what that means for intelligence services and for diplomats flying in and out? If there is an exemption for military personnel, I wonder whether the Minister can say anything —he may be constrained on this—around intelligence and/or diplomatic flights coming in and out.

As I say, the integrity and policing of our borders is obviously a really important matter. This instrument will help in a proportionate way and, subject to the answers to a couple of those questions, which will help inform discussions when it goes to the other place, these regulations are generally to be welcomed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, some interesting questions have certainly been thrown up. This has been a useful and helpful conversation and it has been interesting to hear not just the concerns and issues raised but some of the direct experience that your Lordships have in using this method of travel. I will briefly set out the overall position, further to what I said in my opening remarks, but also try to answer some of the many questions that I received.

As I set out, these regulations intend to provide Border Force and other law enforcement partners with greater visibility of who intends to travel to and from the UK on international general aviation flights, and enable them to better use that information. While we have considered the impact on the general aviation sector, this must be viewed against the wider border security benefits that these regulations will provide.

As I said, more than 50% of those in the general aviation sector already submit their information using online methods. For these, there will be no change or impact as they are already complying. Yes, for those who submit via email and other means there will be a change, but we consider it to be a small change in behaviour and have provided a free-to-use web service through which to do this. The impact will be felt most by those who do not comply, and it is these persistent offenders who will be subject to the civil penalty regime.

I understand that there may be concerns about the operation of Border Force and the underpinning civil penalty regime where general aviation owners, agents or captains who breach a requirement of the regulations may be subject to a penalty of up to £10,000. We recognise this, of course, and I assure your Lordships that the civil penalty regime, while being robust, will also be fair. Our approach is one of collaborative working but, where a serious breach of the regulations occurs or Border Force has to deal with persistent non-compliance, it is only right and proper that we should penalise the general aviation owner, agent or captain. The Home Office has drafted guidance for Border Force and the general aviation sector, which will be published in advance of these regulations entering into force. This will give the sector adequate time to understand its obligations and the penalties should some fail to comply.

I will try to address some of the points raised, particularly by my noble friend Lord Goschen. There obviously may be occasions when, due to a technical issue during a flight, the aircraft cannot land at its intended destination or has to be redirected to an alternative aerodrome. In such circumstances, I understand that there is guidance available on GOV.UK setting out the process that should be followed on arrival. I assure your Lordships that there is no suggestion that safety should be put at risk to comply with the information that has been submitted.

Where changes in weather mean that a flight has to divert at short notice, that change should be notified to Border Force where possible. In the event that it is not possible for the information to be supplied online, in accordance with the proposed regulations, it should be supplied to the relevant Border Force region by telephone at the earliest opportunity. I understand that the detail of this is also set out on GOV.UK.

I thought it would also be worth setting out some of our engagement with other government departments that have an interest in this sector. The Home Office works in close partnership with colleagues from other government departments and law enforcement bodies, in particular HMRC, the Department for Transport, counterterrorism border policing and the National Crime Agency. Home Office officials hold regular meetings with their HMRC and DfT counterparts. All government departments and law enforcement partners, as well as the devolved Administrations, were invited to respond to the consultation last summer; I believe that the Home Office responded to each response received in order to address their specific concerns.

I turn to some of the other concerns that have been raised today on whether we can be tougher in our approach and whether we have looked at the risks. Let me be clear: acquiring and processing information about these flights online and in advance is the primary element of our approach to managing the risk posed by general aviation. Working with HMRC, the Home Office has reduced the number of airfields into which an international GA flight can arrive from more than 3,000 to 400. This is a result of the UK’s departure from the EU, which meant that, to continue receiving international flights, airfields had to apply for a certificate of agreement. This was another significant step taken to manage the risks posed by GA flights.

As a result of these regulations, all crew and passengers arriving on international flights have their details checked before departure and arrival. Border Force, the security services and the police use intelligence to address a series of security, policing, immigration and customs matters then determine an appropriate operational response. That combination of intelligence assessment, expert judgment and spot checks means we can provide an appropriate operational response.

As I have said, security is paramount and we are absolutely alert to the risk that general aviation could be used to evade detection or smuggle goods; that is why these regulations assist Border Force to better manage the data that we have and our response. Equally, general aviation is often seen as the preserve of those who are wealthy enough to own or hire private aircraft and may feel that these regulations do not apply to them. Let me be clear: this will not be tolerated. The underpinning civil penalty regime will enable front-line officers to take immediate and swift action in the event of non-compliance. Further, general aviation owners, agents or captains who persistently fail to comply will see the amount by which they are penalised increase up to £10,000. The Home Office will closely monitor compliance should it become apparent that there are still persistent offenders for whom the maximum penalty is an insufficient deterrent. We will have no qualms in seeking to amend the regulations further to make the penalty more significant in due course.

A number of other issues were raised. The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about the awareness events. My understanding is that, for these regulations, 80 people attended. Obviously, there was also an online facility with the consultation; just short of 200 responses were received through that.

My noble friend Lord Young asked a number of questions about how this will impact on internal flights. These regulations apply only to international flights and do not cover domestic flights. He and the noble Lord, Lord German, also asked about a related issue. The requirement for passport information on flights between Ireland and Great Britain does not apply to British and Irish nationals as they will now not be required to hold their passport. All other nationalities are required to do so; as I said, these regulations apply only to international flights, not domestic ones.

My noble friend Lord Young asked about the penalty of £10,000. I understand that this corresponds with the penalty for operators of scheduled flights.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about ports. As he said, they are not covered by this instrument, but I assure him that I will write on this. Obviously, there are some related issues. He also asked about the figures of 48 and two hours. My understanding is that in 2017 Border Force conducted a study analysing the time needed for a Border Force officer to deploy to any location. It was found that most locations could be reached within the two hours; as a result, we have had to maintain two hours prior to departure as the latest point at which the information must be submitted. We are confident that the checks can be done within that two-hour period.

The noble Lord also asked about exemptions and military flights. Military personnel are exempt on military flights. Everyone else will have to go through this regime.

Can I just emphasise that point so that people who read our proceedings are clear? Any diplomat, of whatever rank, leaving or coming into this country who seeks to come in outside of a scheduled flight has to notify Border Force that they are coming in or leaving. Is that right?

Yes, I confirm that. I sought that clarity for myself. You are correct; it is only military personnel on military flights who will be exempt.

Could my noble friend write to me on the issue I raised about the anomaly between travelling from England to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland back to England?

Yes, I appreciate that. I absolutely will.

To conclude, adopting these regulations will deliver significant border security benefits to Border Force and other law enforcement partners, ensuring that we have a greater awareness of all individuals intending to travel to or from the UK and that we can prevent the travel of certain individuals where it is in the public interest to do so. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Committee once more.

Motion agreed.