Skip to main content

Aviation Security

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on recent changes to aviation security.

The safety and security of the travelling public will always be our paramount concern, and this Government will not hesitate in putting in place any measures that we believe are necessary, effective and proportionate. That why we took the decision yesterday to step up some of our aviation security measures in response to potential threats, as set out in a written statement yesterday afternoon.

The new measures will be applied to all inbound direct flights to the United Kingdom from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. We have explained the decision at all levels with our partners in the region. We have also spoken to European partners with significant interests in aviation, such as Germany and France, and partners elsewhere whose travellers and carriers may be affected. The House will be aware that the United States Government made a similar announcement shortly before ours regarding flights to the United States, and we have been in close contact with them to fully understand their position. While the UK has some of the most robust aviation security measures in the world, we can never be complacent. That is why we continue to work in conjunction with our international partners and the wider aviation industry to keep security under constant review and to ensure that new measures are introduced in a way that keeps the level of disruption that they may cause to passengers to a minimum.

Passengers boarding flights to the UK from the countries I have listed will not be allowed to take any phones, laptops or tablets larger than a normal-sized mobile phone. We have specified the maximum dimensions to assist both airlines and passengers: a length of 16 cm, a width of 9.3 cm, and a depth of 1.5 cm. Passengers are advised to take some simple steps at check-in to prepare by placing personal electronic devices into their hold luggage before going through central security. Normal cabin baggage restrictions will continue to apply. Passengers should check online with their airline or airport for further information. My Department is working round the clock with the industry to ensure that passengers get the information they need when and where they need it. While we will do everything we can to minimise the disruption to people’s journeys and we understand the frustration that may be caused, our top priority will always be to ensure that public safety is maintained.

These new measures are concerned with flights into the United Kingdom. The UK is not advising against flying to and from the affected countries, and those with imminent travel plans should contact their airline for further information—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office also publishes travel advice on its website. UK airports have been informed, and my officials have asked them to consider standing up their own contingency arrangements, should they be needed.

The whole House will recognise that we face a constantly evolving threat from terrorism and must respond accordingly to ensure the protection of the public against those who would do us harm. The changes we are making to our security measures are an important part of that process, and I assure the House that we will continue to work closely with airlines, airports and the wider travel industry over the coming weeks to ensure that passengers know what is expected of them. I ask for passengers’ patience as the new measures bed in.

I will continue to keep the House updated on developments.

This is a major change to our aviation security regulations and carries serious potential for delay and confusion for UK passengers.

First, will the Secretary of State explain why the UK and US bans were announced within hours of one another yet provide for different countries, different airlines and, in effect, different devices? The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco, for example, are all affected by the US ban but are not included in the UK ban. No US operator is affected, but six British airlines are. Size restrictions on electronic items differ between the two.

The Washington Post reports that US officials have been discussing new restrictions for more than a fortnight. When exactly did Ministers first learn of those potential changes? Does the Secretary of State agree that, to avoid passenger confusion and delay, efforts should be made to harmonise the bans? And for what specific reasons did he exclude fewer countries than the US?

Secondly, passengers presently booked to fly from one of the affected airports are unclear about what the ban will mean for them in practice. For the increasing number of passengers who fly on “hand baggage only” fares, what procedures have been put in place proactively to communicate changes before they turn up at security queues at a busy airport? Will UK passengers have to buy luggage in order to carry their electronic devices? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with insurers, who do not routinely cover electronics carried in the hold, and what assessment has he made of the security of affected airports against theft and damage to devices?

Thirdly, efficacy. Have the restrictions been introduced in response to a specific threat that differs in nature from the al-Shabaab attack on an aircraft out of Mogadishu, which took place more than a year ago and did not result in the loss of the aircraft? Have checks on such items been stepped up, in addition to changes to their placement on aircraft? And what evidence does the Secretary of State have that placing potentially problematic items in the hold is safer than placing them in the cabin, especially as potentially explosive devices, such as lithium-ion batteries, have been banned from hold luggage?

Aviation security is rightly under constant review. Can the Secretary of State assure us that all has been done to ensure that these regulations are effective, consistent and put the passenger first?

First, on aviation security, let me make it clear that we respond to the evolving threat we face from terrorists. There are some things that we make public, and there are others that we do not. I will not give the hon. Gentleman full details of the background to the decision, which we took in response to an evolving threat—he would not expect me to do that. Suffice it to say to the House that we have taken these steps for good reason.

On the difference between the approaches of the United Kingdom and the United States; the approach of the United States is a matter for them. As would be expected, we have considered all the evolving information before us to reach a decision about what we believe is in the interest of the United Kingdom and the protection of our citizens.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the measure does not affect US operators, and the answer is that they do not currently fly to the affected destinations; other airlines do. We have applied our change to the requirements to all airlines, both UK and non-UK, that fly the affected routes. On the question of timing, we keep the matter under constant review and have done so for some time. We have taken this decision because we believe it is the right one to take against the background of the evolving threat.

The hon. Gentleman asked about people travelling with hand baggage only. That is very much a matter for the airlines to resolve. We have been in detailed discussions with them in recent days, and they are now preparing to implement this new change. It will be for individual airlines to establish exactly how to handle passengers who are booked on hand baggage-only tickets. I will write today to the Association of British Insurers to ask it to be mindful of this issue. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the risk of theft, and we will ask the insurance industry to be careful to be mindful of and realistic about this. We have taken this decision in a way that we believe is necessary to protect the safety of UK passengers, but the hon. Gentleman will forgive me and understand if I say that the background to every decision of this kind that we take is inevitably based on matters that we cannot automatically put into the public arena.

I have just returned from a Conservative Middle East Council trip to Egypt, where we were able to see the devastating effect to the local economy in Sharm el-Sheikh of the continuing ban on flights to that region. We also met the President and heard first-hand from the Egyptians their concerns that they are being singled out in some way; that may be the reaction of other allies who are being named today. Will my right hon. Friend commit to discussing with other Ministers a diplomatic offensive to go to these countries to explain to them why these actions are being taken and that they are not being singled out? Will he also liaise with the Secretary of State for International Development to provide some extra assistance to the airports in these countries? The change will cause further disruption to travellers, and some airports simply do not have the capacity to introduce a new security measure.

I can give my right hon. Friend a categorical assurance that we are already in dialogue with the countries and that we will take great care to ensure that we do everything we can to help at the other end, in their airports. We already co-operate closely. To be absolutely clear, this is not a question of singling out countries; we would never embark on such a process. The decisions are taken purely and simply on the basis of what we believe the risks are and where we believe we need to take steps to protect United Kingdom citizens. It is no more and no less than that.

Safety must, of course, be the top priority, but there really are still too many loose ends. Do the Government have evidence that the security risk to flights from the countries listed by the Secretary of State is greater than the risk from flights from other countries? If not, why are flights from these countries alone being targeted for action? Why have the UK and the USA apparently reached different conclusions—I assume, from the same intelligence—about the countries from which in-cabin electronics present the greatest risk, or are the differences between the two lists about something other than intelligence?

If the presence of electronics on aircraft flying from the countries listed is the security threat Ministers believe it to be, why are there no restrictions on electronics in the hold baggage from those countries? What thought has been given to people carrying electronics on board who change planes in countries not affected by the measures? What liaison has there been with the countries listed, with countries not listed and with airlines, all of whose confidence and co-operation will be crucial to the effectiveness or otherwise of the measures? What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that passengers get the clearest information possible about what they are and are not allowed to take on board to ensure that delays to journeys are minimised?

As I said at the outset, safety has to be our top priority, but there really are too many loose ends. If there really are clear security grounds for the restrictions, the Secretary of State has to be clearer about what those grounds are, otherwise the UK and US Governments will remain open to the suspicion that they are unreasonably singling out particular countries in the middle east and north Africa, rather than properly thinking through which precautions can actually keep flights safe from terrorism, wherever the aircraft fly from.

I take a little bit of issue with that last point. The Labour party was in power for 13 years, and the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench predecessors well understood that there are things that we cannot set out in public that lie behind the decisions we take in the interests of passengers. That has not changed throughout all the years in which each of our parties has been in office. I understand his desire for information, but the reality is that there is an evolving security threat to aircraft, and we take decisions as and when we believe it is necessary to do so to protect our citizens. I am very clear that this is nothing to do with singling out countries or destinations. The decisions we take are based purely and simply on an evolving security threat, and on what we believe is the right way to protect United Kingdom citizens. The United States Administration will take decisions about how they believe they should best protect their citizens. We do not always have to take exactly the same decisions on behalf of both our countries. We have done what we think is right for the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of other points, including transfer passengers. The rules will apply to transfer passengers. As is normally the case now, transfer passengers will go through a further central security check and will be subject to the same at-gate checks. If they have a laptop, tablet, or large or oversized phone with them, it will be placed in the aircraft’s hold. The individual airlines are working, with our support, on providing the best possible information to passengers, as will the Foreign Office and various Government agencies that can play a role, but our first and foremost priority in response to an evolving security threat is to ensure that we provide the best possible protection for our citizens.

I hate to be disingenuous to my right hon. Friend by repeating answers but, as I said, I cannot discuss the detail of that evolving security threat. We have taken what we believe is the right decision in the interests of protecting our citizens.

We cannot second-guess the security intelligence that the Government have received. The safety and security of our citizens are the primary concerns of the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government, who will work closely with the UK Government to ensure that appropriate and proportionate measures are in place. First, I ask the Secretary of State what discussions have taken place with Scottish Government Ministers, and did those discussions include a commitment to keep them and Transport Scotland up to date with developing events? Secondly, will some kind of mitigation or compensation be put in place for those who may face extra charges as a result of having booked flights with just hand baggage previously? Finally, what additional resources, if required, will be made available to UK airports to take forward the measures?

On the latter point, the impact on UK airports is not immediate because the new rules do not apply to UK airports, but we have asked UK airports to think ahead practically in case matters change in the future. The aviation Minister and officials were in contact with the Scottish Government yesterday. I believe that the Scottish Minister and the aviation Minister have yet to be able to fix a time to speak, but intend to do so today. We will keep the Scottish Government informed. With regards to people who have booked hand baggage only and who may be affected, we have been in discussions with the airlines and we hope, believe and expect that they will work a system that ensures people are not worse off as a result of the changes.

I commend my right hon. Friend for ensuring the paramount importance of our national security and the safety of British citizens travelling. As Gatwick airport is in my constituency, I am also grateful to him for talking with the airport authorities and tour operators in my area. May I seek assurances that he will continue to keep them involved as this evolving situation develops?

I can give my hon. Friend that absolute guarantee. We are talking extensively to the whole industry. It is very much my hope that we will not end up having to take further steps, but we need to be constantly mindful of the evolving security threat. The security and safety of British passengers will always be absolutely at the top of our priority list.

I am reassured that security is paramount, and it must remain so, but will the Secretary of State please clarify exactly how passengers will know which arrangements they have to make for individual journeys? Is he still looking at the situation in overseas airports where it is known that there are security concerns?

We have a widespread effort to make sure we provide protection to our citizens, both in the UK and in other countries. We do extensive security liaison work with other countries, including in the region affected. I am very grateful to all the countries we work with for the co-operation and support they provide us with in this important work. It is in all our interests that we continue to maintain aviation and tourist flows and to provide the economic benefits to all parties that good aviation brings. We will do everything we can to work with those partners to make sure we have as safe an aviation sector as we can.

We all accept that circumstances change and threats will change over time. Is there a time limit to these changes? Is there a specific date when they will be reviewed?

On time limits, the change will be implemented from now by the airlines; they are being asked to have the changes in place within a very short period. Clearly, they will have a job to do, as we will, to communicate to people who are returning and will be affected by this. The airlines are very seized of the need to do that well. We all hope that these are temporary measures, but we will keep this under review and we will keep them in place for as long as they are necessary to secure the safety of our passengers.

I accept that the Secretary of State may not be able to answer these two questions, but why does this measure apply only to direct flights? Are other countries under active consideration in terms of being added to the list?

All I can say in response is that we keep these issues under constant review. We believe the decisions we have taken this week are the right ones in the face of the evolving terrorist threat.

I thank the Secretary of State for his update. Many of my constituents work at National Air Traffic Services and my constituency is host to Southampton airport. How will the communications start in respect of journeys from regional airports?

It will be very much the responsibility of the airlines to explain this, and we will provide them with whatever support we can. I extend my thanks to all those people in the UK airlines, and indeed in international airlines, with whom my Department has been working in the past few days. They have been enormously helpful and co-operative on what is a difficult change for them, and we should all be grateful to them.

May I ask the Secretary of State about flights from this country? Is he confident that if a terrorist were to try to get a laptop or an iPad on to a plane here, that would be detected, and that there is no chance of their getting it through our security?

Our airports and our security industry are among the best—if not the best—in the world. We should be proud of how well our airports are protected. The decisions we take are based, and those we take in the future will be based, on our assessment of what is necessary at any time. Our judgment is that the changes we are making today are what is necessary at this moment in time, given the evolving threat.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right when he says that security must be the Government’s top priority, and this is something I am sure people will feel comfortable with in the long run. He mentioned minimising disruption and frustration for passengers. What discussions has he had with Home Office counterparts at Border Force to minimise disruption, given that only five of Gatwick’s many scanners working were working on Monday?

It is disappointing if there has been a temporary problem at the airport, but my recent experience of travelling through Gatwick has been that it is generally pretty good and so something must have gone wrong on that day. I know that all our airports and those in the Border Agency will endeavour to work with the airlines to try to make sure that any steps we take to address security issues are undertaken in a way that minimises to the maximum possible extent the impact on passengers.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to take whatever measures are necessary to protect the public from the threat of terrorism. Further to the question put by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on Egypt, the Secretary of State mentioned Tunisia, which has already been suffering because of the travel ban, and this measure will be an added burden on those travelling from Tunisia. If the Tunisian authorities ask the Government for assistance with the initiation of new scanner equipment, would we be willing to help them provide that kind of equipment?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments. First, we already provide extensive support and will continue to do so. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) is due to be visiting Tunisia in a couple of weeks’ time. We are already in contact with the Tunisians and with the Egyptians, and we will do what we can to help them, both with this issue and with related issues. None the less, we will always still put the safety of our citizens first.

Further to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), about 100,000 people are employed in the tourist industry in Sharm el-Sheikh and they could lose their jobs if the flight ban continues. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consult other people I see sitting on the Treasury Bench to ensure that the impact that that degree of unemployment could have, including on the wider supply chain jobs and in leading to further radicalisation of people in South Sinai, is considered?

We have extensive conversations with the Egyptians and we have kept the situation in Sharm el-Sheikh under constant monitoring. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in the Home Office have regular contacts and discussions about these issues, as does my Department. Fundamentally, although I would love to see us resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh at the earliest opportunity, we can do so only at a point where we are confident about the security and safety of our own people. I have no doubt that as soon as we have that confidence we will want to try to resume those flights.

The Government are of course right to act swiftly in response to intelligence regarding terror threats, but a number of important questions remain. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) noted, some passengers from the countries listed will change planes in third countries. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his counterparts in other countries about the implementation of these restrictions for transfer passengers?

As of yesterday, when we took the decision, we had already had contacts at both ambassadorial and ministerial level in some places with our counterparts in other countries. They will each take their own decisions about what is necessary, but we are clear about what is right for our citizens. Those countries elsewhere in Europe and in the world will now be contemplating what the best steps are in terms of their own citizens.

As this is an evolving threat, will my right hon. Friend confirm that countries and airports could be added or removed from the list that the Government have published, should the British intelligence services so recommend?

Obviously, we will keep this and other security issues in relation to our aviation sector under review. We will take whatever steps are necessary to provide that protection. As I say, I hope that this new set of measures will prove to be temporary, but first and foremost our focus will be on the security and safety of our passengers. Therefore, that will be the deciding factor in what we do in the future.

The United States ban will be enforced by 7 am on Saturday, following 96 hours’ notice. The Secretary of State said that airlines here would implement this ban over a short period of time. Has he given airlines in the UK an indication of a firm deadline by which he expect full implementation of the UK ban?

I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that on such a day the message should also be about reassuring people that threats are reacted to and passengers should not be panicking about these types of announcements. Will he outline what steps will be taken to reassure passengers as well as inform them of the work the Government are doing?

Let me make it clear again to the House today: we are not saying to people that they should not travel to these countries. We are not saying that they should cancel their flights. We are not saying that they should cancel their holidays. We want aviation to continue as normal and we are simply taking additional security measures to make sure that that aviation is safe for those people who travel. There is absolutely no change to Foreign Office travel advice and no change to our advice to people about where, how and when they should travel; this is purely about making sure that when they do travel they are safe.

The Secretary of State said that anyone who travels on a hand baggage-only ticket would not be charged or out of pocket, and that he would be encouraging the airlines, which would be responsible, to take the right course of action. Will he consider doing something further to make sure that nobody is charged for putting hand baggage in the hold?

We are in discussion with the airlines about this. But this measure is not about an inability to take hand baggage into the cabin. If someone arrives at the gate with one of these items in their bag, it will be put in the hold. This is not about saying that people cannot have hand baggage, although some people may choose to put all their hand baggage into the hold; it is simply about the device itself.

I am not seeking any information from the Secretary of State on the nature of the intelligence, but I am concerned about the implications of the ban on diplomatic relationships with valuable allies. I, too, have returned from Egypt, and if such security relationships are jeopardised, that will jeopardise the longer-term wider security of UK citizens.

That is precisely why these are difficult issues, and we will do everything we can to strengthen our partnerships with those nations. We are sending a very clear message that we are not saying to people, “As a result of this change, stop flying on those routes,” but saying, “You should probably have more confidence about flying on those routes, because the measures we are putting in place today should protect your safety, rather than have the opposite effect.”

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) for asking this urgent question. We are approaching Easter, a time when many families, with many nervous flyers among them, will be taking flights. What reassurance can be given to families taking flights from other destinations—not the ones listed—that the terrorists will not just think that as they can no longer fly and use their laptops in an appalling and offensive way on these flights, they will go to another country that does not have a ban?

The reassurance I would give to those people is that we put in place such safety measures when we believe they are the right thing to do to protect their safety. We think this is the right way to address the issues that we have been considering, but I would say to people travelling from elsewhere that if we had had the same concerns, we would have acted more broadly. We have acted in the way that we think reflects the evolving terrorist threat. I hope that people generally will travel at Easter as normal, and those travelling on these routes can do so knowing that we have put in place additional safety measures to protect them.

Ministers are absolutely right to be uncompromising when it comes to passenger safety, but what consultation was carried out with the airlines before the regulations were made?

We have been in regular contact with the airlines in recent days, and we have talked to them about the implications of the change. I last had conversations with a number of the airlines yesterday afternoon, as did the aviation Minister, so we have been in regular contact with them.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement. As everyone has said, security is paramount, and the measures are important and welcome. He has named six countries, but he will know that it is easy to move from country to country and that it may therefore be possible to bypass the new security systems. What consideration has been given to adding other countries to that list right away?

There are a range of ways in which we protect the security of passengers on flights to the United Kingdom. This is one part of a broader strategy that we have had in place for many years to provide such protection. We make changes when we judge them necessary in the face of the evolving threat, and we will of course continue to monitor the situation and make any further changes dictated by that evolving threat.

By default, the Government are saying that they do not trust the security arrangements that these countries have in place at their airports, and we are actually putting an extra onus on the airlines. What checks will the Government do to make sure that the new arrangements are successful and that people cannot actually still get electronic devices into the cabins of aeroplanes?

Let me absolutely clear: this new announcement is not a vote of no confidence in the security measures in any other country. The decision was specifically taken in response to an evolving security threat, and I do not want it to be seen as a thumbs down to the security arrangements available in any of the countries affected.

I will keep you on my Christmas card list for now, Mr Speaker.

I of course commend the Secretary of State for acting on the security information he has been given. However, I have been contacted by a constituent, Dr Ahmed Khan, who has previously experienced some unpleasant behaviour at airports when he has been travelling. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance to my constituent and other Muslim people around the UK, who may feel that this is another attack on their liberties at airports, that it is not such an attack and that they will be treated properly and with dignity as they travel through UK airports?

Let me also be clear about this point: in recent years, we have seen a whole range of horrendous terrorist events in which Christians, Muslims, Hindus, people of no faith and many others have died side by side. Our job is to protect every single citizen of the United Kingdom whatever their faith, and this is about protecting every single citizen of the United Kingdom whatever their faith.