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Aviation Security (Reasoned Opinion)

Debated on Monday 31 October 2016

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr David Hanson

† Allan, Lucy (Telford) (Con)

† Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)

† Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con)

Flello, Robert (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab)

† Foxcroft, Vicky (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)

† Hayes, Mr John (Minister of State, Department for Transport)

† Prentis, Victoria (Banbury) (Con)

† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Stewart, Iain (Milton Keynes South) (Con)

† Stringer, Graham (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)

Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

Katy Stout, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

European Committee A

Monday 31 October 2016

[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Aviation Security (Reasoned Opinion)

Welcome to today’s European Committee. Before we begin, it will be helpful to remind Members how the process will work. The whole proceeding must conclude no later than two and a half hours after we start, which will be 7 pm. First, I will call a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, who I understand on this occasion is Mr Stringer, to give a brief statement about why the Committee decided to refer these documents for debate. Secondly, I shall call the Minister to make a statement, which should be no longer than 10 minutes in duration. It will be followed by questions for up to an hour, and then we will debate the Government motion in whatever time is left, subject to a vote at the end, should we so wish.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. The debate arises because the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I serve, has recommended that the House of Commons issues a reasoned opinion against the Commission proposal for a regulation creating a common certification scheme. A reasoned opinion signifies that the House does not consider that the proposal complies with the principle of subsidiarity. Put simply, this principle requires matters to be left to member states if they are best placed to handle them and the EU will not achieve a better result. Should the Committee approve, the House will be asked formally to approve the sending of a reasoned opinion by the 3 November deadline. A draft is annexed to our report, which forms part of the debate pack.

The terrorist attack on Zaventem airport in Brussels earlier this year was a sad reminder of how important airport security is for individual EU member states, and the incident at Glasgow airport in 2007 was a concrete example of how the United Kingdom is not immune to such attacks. The risk of such attacks fluctuates with changes in the terrorist threats faced by individual member states at any given time. The EU recognised that member states might need to react unilaterally to threats in its 2008 civil aviation security regulations, which set minimum standards for airport security but allow member states to apply higher security standards or more stringent measures in relation to airport security screening equipment than the minimum EU standards. The United Kingdom takes advantage of that provision.

This proposal is ostensibly concerned not with those standards but with creating a common certification system intended to facilitate the marketing of security equipment. However, a significant concern of the European Scrutiny Committee is that, despite Commission claims to the contrary, one of the effects of the proposal, albeit an unintended one, is that member states will no longer be able to apply more stringent measures. The Committee, in its reasoned opinion, also questions the basis of the Commission’s assumption that member states will not voluntarily improve their existing co-operation at a national level on the approval of equipment operated within the European Civil Aviation Conference. It also fears that the benefits of EU action might be undermined by the risk to confidential data associated with the equipment and by the cost and bureaucracy involved for member states in setting up certification processes and bodies.

The French National Assembly also issued a reasoned opinion on similar grounds. Although we are unlikely to reach the one third of votes in national Parliaments required to trigger a yellow card, which would result in the Commission’s having formally to reconsider its proposal, reasoned opinions from two Chambers from major member states ought to have some influence on the eventual outcome.

Before I call the Minister to make the opening statement, I remind the Committee that this is a statement, so interventions are not allowed. There is an opportunity for questions when the Minister has finished his remarks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, who, as ever, has brought sagacity and eloquence to our affairs. On this matter, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to say that I agree with what he has said already, and I will set out why.

This measure is probably an archetypical example of the European Union doing what it does not need to do, in a way that it does not need to do it, and that is unhelpful to this country’s interest. I understand entirely therefore why the European Scrutiny Committee has recommended that the matter be debated.

I have an immensely long speech prepared for me but I will abbreviate it—you will be pleased to know that, Mr Hanson—because I think I can set out in sufficient detail in a much shorter way a legitimisation or justification of the assertion that I have just made that is true to the motion.

There are several critical things here. The first is that the UK has one of the strictest aviation security regimes in the world and we keep that regime under constant review. In my previous job at the Home Office as Security Minister, I looked at these matters very closely and at first hand, examining the latest developments in screening technology at airports, for example, which enable us to maintain high standards of security.

The second point is that much of our aviation security derives from a common regime that is already in practice. That regime is Europe-wide; it applies across the European Union. However, that regime allows member states to add their own more stringent measures on top of the baseline standard that applies across the continent.

Of course, that regime is based on particular risk assessments. The circumstances at different airports and in different countries will vary, and it will be necessary to put in place particular measures that are relevant to those circumstances. Different countries have different threat levels; I think that is well understood. To reflect that, we in the UK apply a number of more stringent standards, of the kind that I looked at in my previous job.

I also mentioned a moment ago that aviation security has at its heart the way in which we screen individuals and materials that pass through airports. Screening methods vary from the archways designed to detect metal objects carried on a person’s body to machines designed to detect explosives in cabin baggage or hold baggage.

To ensure that such equipment is fit for purpose, I entirely recognise that it is important that we have standards and that those standards are applied with rigour. It is also important that we are aware of changing threats and take advantage of changing technology. Screening technology is moving on, allowing us to detect materials that previously would have been undetectable.

Standards for checking, testing and validating those technological advances are already in place, having been developed over a number of years and having been overseen by ECAC, which is a pan-European body that brings together 44 European states to work jointly on such matters. Government scientists work alongside their contemporaries from other countries, clearly making a significant contribution to the work on testing standards for screening equipment. It is important that these standards are very exacting and encourage manufacturers to innovate in order to promote the development of new technologies that drive up performance.

Under the proposal that has emanated from the European Union, each member state would be required to designate a body with responsibility for approving the compliance of equipment that is used in the delivery of EU security rules, by issuing EU-type approval certificates on the basis of prototype testing. Once a state has granted type approval to a manufacturer for a particular model of equipment, it is valid throughout the European Union.

The problem is that equipment standards are already at least as high as those required under the proposed regime, so the regime would add nothing to what is happening now. It is unnecessary and unwelcome, but it might be worse than that: it might actually prevent us from developing and applying these new higher standards. It is undoubtedly true that this proposal conflicts, although not necessarily intentionally, with the principle of subsidiarity, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton amplified in his opening remarks and as is implicit in the motion. Because of those core points—first, that there is a high level of aviation security in the UK, secondly, that there is a pan-European approach that already works, thirdly, that this might worsen the situation and, fourthly, that it is clearly contrary to the principles that underpin subsidiarity—I fully appreciate, understand and am mindful to support the motion.

I thank the Minister. We now have until 5.35 pm at the latest for members of the Committee to ask questions. Members, at my discretion, can ask more than one question in an exchange.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and to serve alongside the Minister. We were just saying that the last time I did so was on the Infrastructure Bill, which went on for a great deal longer than this debate will.

I have a few questions. First, the Government’s explanatory memorandum, the Minister and the Under-Secretary in the other place, Lord Ahmad, have all said that there have been improvements in the European Civil Aviation Conference’s common evaluation process in recent years. I would be grateful if the Minister can outline those improvements and how they address some of the issues that the regulation is intended to address.

Secondly, both the Government and the European Scrutiny Committee expressed concerns about the impact that this regulation could have on the ability of member states to implement higher standards and more stringent measures on aviation security equipment. I am not entirely clear whether that is a theoretical concern or whether it is based on any evidence. Are there any examples of similar regulations that have caused that to happen?

Thirdly, since the publication of the European agenda on security, have the UK Government been consulting with other member states on aviation security equipment? Does that have any significance for the European Commission’s argument for this proposal on the subsidiarity principle? There may be a link between my first question and my third.

Fourthly, as the Minister is aware, the European Commission drew up five policy options in its impact assessment for this proposal. It would be useful to know the Government’s position on those five options.

On the third question—to maintain the Committee’s interest, it is important that I mix up the order of my answers—it is certainly true that the UK Government have enjoyed close co-operation with other European countries on aviation security. Indeed, by necessity, our approach to aviation security is pan-national, and not just with European countries. The Home Office has worked with countries from around the world that are important destinations for UK travellers to improve airport security, including by sharing equipment and expertise where appropriate. In specific relation to the proposal, we have worked with other members of the EU. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton mentioned France. France is known to share our view on the proposal, and it is likely that other countries will, too. I will not go exhaustively into the process that will now enjoin the European Union as a result, but it is likely that a considerable number of countries will try to ameliorate, mitigate or block the proposal. Indeed, France is already actively, in the way the hon. Gentleman mentioned, doing what we are being asked to do today.

In answer to the first question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, which was on the development of standards, I mentioned ECAC and the role it has played over a considerable time. We have succeeded in developing standards that essentially do two things. Actually, they do three things—I am receiving advice, which I will use to supplement what I am saying, as Ministers always should. You know that, Mr Hanson, from your time as a distinguished Minister in the Home Office.

The first thing the standards do is take advantage of cutting-edge technology. In practice, that means we are trying to detect more things more accurately. The read-out from the latest scanning technology is clearer. It is designed to detect smaller items that might be concealed about someone’s person or in their baggage. In essence, it is about having a speedier, more effective process.

Secondly, the process produces fewer false alarms. False alarms are important in this area, because they delay the process and the alacrity necessary for the efficient practice of airports. Having fewer false alarms reassures people about the certainties in the system. If there are many false alarms, that undermines confidence on the part of airport staff and others that the system will deliver when it needs to.

Thirdly, co-operation in the scientific community among security experts in both the private sector and the public sector is facilitated by the ECAC process. Discussion at Government level and at primary source level—if we think of the technologies, the scientists and the businesses as primary sources of the equipment—is facilitated by the process. Improvements are being made, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question.

The hon. Gentleman’s second question was about why the proposal might do harm. The risk is that, at its worst, it could force us to accept technology that does not detect the latest threats. If we moved away from the ECAC system, which is essentially what the proposal means, we would be transferring power to the Commission under the guise of that slightly Orwellian term, “harmonisation”. I have a very balanced view of the EU, as members of the Committee know—I take an immensely reasonable position—but when it comes to the EU, that term is usually a proxy for taking power.

Under the guise of harmonisation and with the delegation of responsibility to individual member states, it is not inconceivable that we could end up with equipment that was less effective than it needed to be. I am concerned about that. I do not say that it is a likelihood, but it is a possibility under the proposed regime. Fundamentally, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ECAC seems to be working well, so it does not need to be changed. As I said at the outset, the provision seems unnecessary.

Was there a fourth question? If so, what was it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As he said, we have worked together before. There are options to try to mitigate the provision. He will be as familiar as other members of the Committee with how the process works in Europe. There will be continuing discussions before the provision gets to the point of being implemented. If it were to be implemented, that would be at least two years down the line. The question that has not been asked—almost the question that dare not speak its name—is, what will happen to this proposal in relation to Brexit? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says he is coming to that, and I have rather unkindly anticipated his next question.

To be frank, I cannot see us implementing this proposal and we will do all we can not to do so. If we could not mitigate the proposals in the process that we will now endure and if we could not build a sufficient blocking minority among other nations—which I think we probably could—I suppose it would be theoretically possible that we might end up having it forced upon us for a very short period.

My real anxiety, however, which will be spinning through the hon. Gentleman’s mind at the moment, is what happens to other European countries. Even if we were not part of this scheme—if ECAC is undermined by this—we might all in the end be losers. It is in the interest not just of our country, but of all the countries of Europe, that we affirm our support for the existing arrangements, which seem to me to work well. The frank answer is that we will oppose this proposal at every turn and try to stop it.

If there are no further questions from Members, we can proceed to debate the motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 12090/16 and Addenda 1, 2 and 3, a proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Union certification system for aviation security screening equipment; considers that the proposal does not comply with the principle of subsidiarity for the reasons set out in Chapter 1 of the Sixteenth Report of the European Scrutiny Committee (HC 71-xiv) and, in accordance with Article 6 of Protocol No. 2 annexed to EU Treaties on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, instructs the Clerk of the House to forward this reasoned opinion to the Presidents of the European Institutions.

Hon. Members could be forgiven for thinking that the regulation before us might be regarded as a bit dry. I guess it is, but the issues behind it—the Minister made this point—are undoubtedly important. As a country, we face significant threats to security, particularly in aviation. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, who is a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, referred to the attack on Brussels airport, which gives us all pause for thought, as does what happened to flight MS804.

It is important that the EU, the UK Government and the aviation industry all work proactively and in co-ordination to address the challenges we face in aviation security. That, of course, includes some common basic standards internationally, and probably at EU level as well. It is also important to understand and to ask the question put by both the Minister and the European Scrutiny Committee about the appropriate mechanisms for doing that—how, in practical terms, we spread best practice.

That is something I saw for myself during a visit to Gatwick airport in November last year, and it was more about the monitoring than the equipment itself. A new system had been introduced at Gatwick, where the monitoring of security scans as the hand luggage went along the conveyor belt was done remotely in a different room, without the distraction of being done there and then by airport staff. They were convinced that that led to better monitoring of the screen.

The people at Gatwick were also convinced that the new system made for a better customer experience, because those who were looking at the screen were uninterrupted and those getting bags off, on and through were concerned about the customer experience. I must admit that I was pretty convinced by that. The discussion I had with staff at Gatwick was how that kind of experience could be spread to other airports.

Turning to some of the concerns that have been raised about the proposal, I acknowledge and note the concerns of the Government as detailed in the explanatory memorandum, as well as those of the European Scrutiny Committee. As the Minister has said, there have been similar concerns in other member states—in France’s National Assembly, for one. The concern is that, if this measure went through as a regulation, rather than a directive, a voluntary agreement or whatever else, it would prevent or undermine the ability of member states to apply stricter measures than the common basic standards.

We have similar concerns. First, it is unclear whether the proposal would restrict the ability of member states to judge the adequacy of security screening equipment, particularly in response to specific security threats. Although all member states face threats, not all of them face the same threats at the same time, so it is important that member states are able to introduce more stringent measures and higher standards in response to new intelligence or technological developments. In any case, that would go beyond the minimum legal standards that the proposal would introduce.

In an accompanying factsheet, the European Commission tried to allay such concerns:

“This proposal does not limit the possibility for any EU Member State to apply more stringent measures for performance requirements as envisaged in the currently applicable EU aviation security legislation.”

The Commission said on the record that the proposal will not restrict more stringent measures being operated. It would be useful if there were more explicit clarification on what is theoretical and what is real. We all agree that it would be wrong for anything to undermine the ability of member states to adopt more stringent measures. The question is, would the measure actually do so?

There were also concerns about the consultation that the Commission undertook and the absence of a consultation in the UK. The European Commission conducted a consultation between March and June 2013, and it received responses that it suggests expressed general support at that stage for a legislative approach—option 3 of its five options. That consultation is now well over three years old, and there have obviously been a lot of developments since then, not least in technology. The Commission’s proposal claims that

“the results of the public consultation can be considered as representative since all the main stakeholder groups responded”,

but the consultation had only 37 respondents across all European member states, eight of which were from the UK.

I appreciate that there has been no formal consultation in the UK, but the Government’s explanatory memorandum states that there have been informal discussions with stakeholders. It would be useful to know whether those discussions identified an industry opinion about the proposal. I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that point, and I would be obliged if he explored options for a more formal consultation on the issue with a wider section of the industry. That would help to identify whether the production and procurement of aviation security equipment is principally seen as an issue for the airports, the airlines, the handling companies or the manufactures. Further, if the Government are to explore options for action with other member states, rather than accepting EU-wide regulation, what action are they going to take?

As the Minister predicted, I turn to the elephant in the room: the UK’s intended departure from the EU. If and when Brexit happens, it will be important to know not simply whether the regulation will have gone through by then, but what the situation will be concerning spreading best practice and adopting international co-operation over best practice for aviation security equipment. There will still be a need to ensure compatibility and higher standards in other countries and between countries. Recent security scares and concerns have not been chiefly about safety in the UK. They have often been about security and safety elsewhere, and about bags and other items of equipment going from one place through a second place to a third place. There is a real issue that came up in the aftermath of MS804.

There were a lot of concerns among trade unions involved in aviation and elsewhere that, if there is inadequate security and screening at a departure airport and the flight connects with another flight, at that middle airport is that bag going to be screened and, if so, by whom and to what standard?

If there is any doubt about the answer to that, the need for common standards that ensure there is, one hopes, a higher but at least an adequate level of screening at every airport from which the plane departs, through which it goes and where it connects, is more important than ever. More work needs to be done in this area to achieve greater equivalence. Aside from any faults it may include, the regulation at least tries to present a way to discuss and explore that pressing issue.

Therefore, I repeat my last question to the Minister: what do the Government believe should happen to address that problem? I understand his concerns and those of the European Scrutiny Committee about the proposal as a regulation, but would those apply if it were a directive or if one of the other European Commission options were adopted? If and when the UK does leave the European Union, what is the future of ECAC? What is the future for that international co-operation to ensure that passengers and aviation and airline staff are kept as safe as they can be?

I note the concerns expressed by the European Scrutiny Committee and the Government about article 4 of the proposal, but I hope the Government will take on board the other concerns I have outlined, and begin to address the need for improvements and stakeholder consultation, as well as greater equivalence expressed as levelling up of aviation security standards across Europe, and indeed further afield.

The hon. Gentleman has raised three or four important points and it is important, because of the significance of this subject, that I address them. He is right that aviation security is a matter of profound concern to us all. I do not need to rehearse the events of recent years but it is very clear to members of the Committee and clear more widely that it is vital that we are as sure as we can be about safety and security at our airports. The Government are absolutely committed to that aim.

The hon. Gentleman is right, as I said earlier, that this has to be considered pan-nationally. The nature of the business we are in, travelling from one place to another, means the point at which someone arrives is as important as the point of departure. To that end, the Government will continue to work with countries across the world—not just across Europe—to maintain and raise standards.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the real chance of this proposal from the European Commission having a deleterious effect on our ability to do the things I have just described. Let me be clear that the proposal is that each member state will be required to designate a body severally, with responsibility for approving the compliance of equipment that is used in the delivery of EU security rules by issuing an EU type approval certificate on the basis of prototype testing.

Once a state has granted type approval to a manufacturer for a particular model of equipment, that would then be valid throughout the EU. The manufacturer would then issue a certificate of conformity to accompany each new piece of equipment. However, the proposed new regulation’s article 4, to which I draw the attention of the Committee, appears to override that provision on internal market grounds by expressly prohibiting member states from imposing “additional requirements” in respect of any equipment that has been approved by any other EU member states under the proposed regime. For the benefit of Members who do not have the text in front of them, the article states:

“Member States shall not impede the making available and/or putting into service of any equipment which is accompanied by a valid certificate of conformity issued in accordance with Article 5”—

which I mentioned a moment ago, and:

“They shall not impose additional requirements in respect of such equipment.”

That is not what happens now. ECAC devised and delivered a baseline standard, and countries across Europe are able to build on it. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is absolutely right that we maintain those baseline standards, and that we do more as necessary. As I think he said, it is also right that different countries do different things at different times, because not only does the technology change, but the threat is dynamic.

Our fear is—although legally this is not absolutely clear, to be honest—that it is possible that the measure could have the disadvantageous effect mentioned by the hon. Gentleman as a question, and to which I alluded earlier.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but I still put that against the assurance of the European Commission in the quote I cited. The Commission seemed to be saying—certainly its impact assessment stated this—that the proposal would allow producers to market and sell their products throughout the European Union once certified by one member state. It does not state, as I understand it, that therefore any airport or member state has to buy those products when it has more stringent requirements of its own.

It does not say that—the hon. Gentleman is right. It does not oblige member states or particular airports to buy that equipment, but given that what applies at the moment is that we have the baseline standards that I outlined, and some countries and airports choose to do more, it is hard to know what advantage this proposal brings. At the very least, it is unnecessary, and perhaps worse, it may be undesirable. That brings me to his second core point, about consultation.

The consultation conducted by the Commission was on general principles, not on the specifics that the hon. Gentleman has, with his usual keen eye, drawn to the attention of the Committee. Those general principles, rather than a specific proposal that could have been considered, are things about which we can all largely agree, frankly, so I would not put much weight on the consultation that the EU has so far enjoined. The specific concerns highlighted by the European Scrutiny Committee only really came to the notice of Members of this House or of other legislatures in Europe when the proposals were published in detail recently. That is why it is good to have this debate now, and it is why the Government have had only an informal consultation.

The hon. Gentleman asked, thirdly, about the future of ECAC. I think that there is a future for it, not least because its members value it. Turkey is a growing aviation power, and ECAC provides a forum to draw it into selected discussions. The worldwide character of the threat to aviation means that ECAC can and more especially should continue to play a key role, but it is certainly true that its position would become less significant—not insignificant, but less significant—were the new powers to be taken by the Commission, which is in part why I do not want them to be taken.

As I have said repeatedly, although perhaps this is indicative not so much of my Euroscepticism, which has more recently become extremely fashionable among the great and the good—or at least among the good—but more of my conservativism, we do not need to do things that we do not need to do. If things are working well, we do not change them—and that is not necessarily about political conservatism, but a slightly more cultural affair, Mr Hanson, which I say to reassure Opposition Members and others who might be listening.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask his questions about consultation, the future of ECAC and the detail of the proposal. The reason that the French have taken the stance that they have—I suspect that they have enjoyed similar conversations, discussions and debates to the ones that we are now enjoying—is that the proposal is, at the very least, shrouded in uncertainty, doubt and scepticism. On that basis, and given the moderate and modest way in which the European Scrutiny Committee has gone about its work, it would ill behove us not to listen carefully to its advice on this occasion and support the motion.

I cannot end—you might be pleased, or sad, to hear, Mr Hanson—without a reference to Keats, since the shadow Minister challenged me to refer to him at the very outset of the sitting:

“Happy is England! I could be content

To see no other verdure than its own;

To feel no other breezes than are blown

Through its tall woods with high romances blent”.

On this occasion, England, Britain, the United Kingdom, is happy with the existing arrangements, and we should stick with them.

The Minister might not have finished yet—it depends on whether anyone else wants to contribute in the almost one hour and 50 minutes that we have left for the debate. There is opportunity for others to contribute, if they so wish, but I sense that people do not wish to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.