I should like to make a statement about the action the Government are taking on our future policy on drones.
The disruption caused by drones to flights at Gatwick airport last month was deliberate, irresponsible and calculated, as well as illegal. It meant days of chaos and uncertainty for over 100,000 passengers at Christmas, one of the busiest times of the year. Carefully planned holidays were disrupted, long-expected reunions between friends and relatives missed. Families were forced to spend hours at an airport, not knowing if or when they would reach their destinations—completely unacceptable and utterly illegal. I pay tribute to all at Gatwick and other airports who worked very hard to make sure people did get away, albeit belatedly, for their Christmas breaks, and I thank all those in the defence world and the police who worked hard to get the airport back together again, and of course Sussex police are now leading the investigation into this criminal activity.
I am clear that, when caught, those responsible should face the maximum possible custodial sentence for this hugely irresponsible criminal act, and I want to assure the House that my Department is working extremely closely with airports, the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Civil Aviation Authority and the police to make sure our national airports are fully prepared to manage any repeat of what was an unprecedented incident. I spoke personally to the heads of the major UK airports before Christmas, and later this week the aviation Minister, Baroness Sugg, will meet them again for an update on progress. In the meantime the Ministry of Defence remains on standby to deal with any further problems at Gatwick or any other airport if required.
This incident was a stark example of why we must continue to ensure drones are used safely and securely in the UK. Today I am publishing the outcome of our recent consultation, “Taking flight: the future of drones in the UK.” We received over 5,000 responses to that consultation reflecting a broad range of views. Those responses underlined the importance of balancing the UK’s world-leading position in aviation safety and security with supporting the development of this emerging industry. The Government are taking action to ensure that passengers can have confidence that their journeys will not be disrupted in future, aircraft can safely use our key transport hubs, and criminals misusing drones can be brought to justice.
The UK is where technology companies want to build their businesses, invest in innovation and use science and engineering to bring immense benefits to this country. Drones are at the forefront of these technological advances and are already being used in the UK to great effect. Our emergency search and rescue services use drones on a regular basis. Drones can also reduce risks for workers in hazardous sectors such as the oil and gas industries, and this technology is also driving more efficient ways of working in many other sectors, from delivering medicines to assisting with building work.
However, the Gatwick incident has reinforced the fact that it is crucial that our regulatory and enforcement regime keeps pace with rapid technological change. We have already taken some big steps towards building a regulatory system for this new sector. It is already an offence to endanger aircraft. Drones must not be flown near people or property and have to be kept within visual line of sight. Commercial users are able to operate drones outside of these rules, but only when granted CAA permission after meeting strict safety conditions.
Education is also vital to ensure everyone understands the rules about drone use. That is why the CAA has been running its long-standing Dronesafe campaign and Dronecode guide—work that is helping to highlight these rules to the public. And on 30 July last year we introduced new measures that barred drones from flying above 400 feet and within 1 km of protected airport boundaries. In addition, we have introduced and passed legislation that will mean that from November all drone operators must register and all drone pilots complete a competency test.
However, we now intend to go further. Today’s measures set out the next steps needed to ensure that drones are used in a safe and secure way and that the industry is accountable. At the same time these steps will ensure that we harness the benefits that drones can bring to the UK economy.
A common theme in those 5,000 consultation responses was the importance of the enforcement of safety regulations. The Government share that view. The majority of drone users fly safely and responsibly, but we must ensure that the police have the right powers to deal with illegal use. We will therefore shortly be introducing new police powers. These include allowing the police to request evidence from drone users where there is reasonable suspicion of an offence being committed, as well as enabling the police to issue fixed penalty notices for minor drone offences. Those new powers will help to ensure effective enforcement of the rules. They will provide an immediate deterrent to those who might misuse drones or attempt to break the law.
My Department has been working closely with the Home Office on the legislative clauses that will deliver these changes. It is of course crucial that our national infrastructure, including airports and other sites such as prisons and energy plants, are also adequately protected to prevent incidents such as that at Gatwick. We must also ensure that the most up-to-date technology is available to detect, track and potentially disrupt drones that are being used illegally, so we have also consulted on the further use of counter-drone technology. Those consultation responses will now be used by the Home Office to develop an appropriate means of using that technology in the UK.
Of course, aviation and passenger safety is at the heart of everything we do. While airlines and airports welcomed our recent airport drone restriction measures, they also asked for the current airport rules to be amended in order to better protect the landing and take-off paths of aircraft. We have listened to those concerns, and we have been working with the CAA and NATS to develop the optimum exclusion zone that will help to meet those requirements. It is important to stress that any restriction zone would not have prevented a deliberate incident such as that at Gatwick. However, it is right that proportionate measures should be in place at airports to protect aircraft and to avoid potential conflict with legitimate drone activity. We will therefore introduce additional protections around airports, with a particular focus on protected exclusion zones from runway ends, alongside increasing the current aerodrome traffic zone restrictions around airports. Drone pilots wishing to fly within these zones must do so only with permission from the aerodrome air traffic control. We will amend the Air Navigation Order 2016 to implement these changes.
I want to address some of the rather ill-judged comments that have been made by Labour Members. Let me remind them of three things. First, the event at Gatwick airport was a deliberate criminal act that can carry a sentence of life imprisonment. We can pass new laws until the cows come home, but that does not stop people breaking them, and the law is as tough as is necessary to punish the perpetrators of an attack such as this. Secondly, this was an entirely new type of challenge. It is noteworthy that, since the events at Gatwick, we have been approached by airports around the world for our advice on how to handle something similar. Thirdly, the issue was solved only by the smart and innovative use of new technology. For security reasons, I am not going to give the House details of how this was achieved, but I want to extend my thanks to the Ministry of Defence for moving rapidly to put a new kind of response into the field.
There is no question but that lessons have to be learned from what happened at Gatwick. Passengers have to be able to travel without fear of their trips being disrupted by malicious drone use. Airports must be prepared to deal with incidents of this type, and the police need the proper powers to deal with drone offences. We must also be ready to harness the opportunities and benefits that the safe use of drones can bring. The measures I have announced today in response to the consultation will take us forward on that front, and I commend this statement to the House.
I should like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of half of his statement—that is a new trick, just giving me some of the pages—but I have to say to him: is that it? Announcing the end of a consultation exercise does not constitute action; nor does it go any way towards restoring confidence in his capabilities; nor does it go any way towards addressing the justified anger of the hundreds of thousands of passengers who had their travel plans thrown into chaos ahead of the festive season after the malicious and sustained drone attack at Gatwick airport. In fact, his statement serves only to highlight the damage that his dithering and delaying have caused.
It is not only Labour Members who are critical. Colonel Richard Kemp, a former intelligence chairman of the Cabinet’s emergency Cobra committee, said:
“It is amazing that this kit”—
the kit to defeat drones—
“was not in place and that we have had to wait two days for it to be installed. This drone incident is hardly a surprise. They’ve been known about for years.”
And Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said:
“By any analysis, the fiasco at Gatwick over the last few days has been a national embarrassment of near-biblical proportions. With most of Europe already sniggering at the United Kingdom over our Government’s inept handling of Brexit, we did not need to add more lines to the pantomime script.”
Of course, right hon. and hon. Members will vividly recall the Secretary of State describing the ennoblement of General Dannatt as a “political gimmick” by the Labour party, only for him then to realise that the former Army chief was in fact ennobled by—you’ve guessed it—the Conservative party.
It is good to learn that the Government might finally listen to the advice of industry on extending drone exclusion zones around airports to some 5 km, but it is unfortunate that this advice was not considered sooner. It is also unfortunate that the drone incursion at Gatwick airport in July 2017 did not serve as a warning to the Secretary of State. He clearly learned no lessons from that incident, and he was totally negligent in failing to bring forward measures to better protect national infrastructure. The Government’s approach to drones has been chaotic, and the industry clearly has no faith in his ability to deal with serious incidents. It was no surprise to learn from the media that, during the Gatwick incident, the Secretary of State was stripped of his command by the security services due to his inaction. An effective Transport Secretary would have taken decisive action once the threat was known and understood. Earlier and clearer direction from him would have given airports the confidence to invest in anti-drone technology. His prevarication has delayed investment in detection and prevention measures. Why did he not ensure that proposals were brought forward to universally license such technology for use at airports?
Labour has repeatedly warned Department for Transport Ministers over the last several years that they needed to take action on drones, yet nowhere near enough has been done. The drone consultation closed five months ago, yet the Gatwick fiasco still happened, and it is abundantly clear that the Department is totally distracted by having to deal with this Government’s chaotic Brexit, including extending the duties of departmental staff to handing out blankets, sandwiches and hot drinks to lorry drivers who find themselves trapped on the M20. Following the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which fell before the last election, the Government have found the time to legislate on space flight and air travel organisers licences, as well as vehicle technology and lasers during this Parliament, but their failure to bring forward detailed plans on drones has had disastrous consequences.
It is frankly astonishing that there were no plans in place across the Government Departments to deal with a drone attack. Why was there no urgent, clear and effective response? The drones Bill will seemingly include powers for the police to enforce any new laws or regulations relating to drones. Greater police powers are welcome, but they are meaningless without more resources. What arrangements does the Secretary of State intend to set out to enable airports to act urgently in the event of a hostile drone incursion? What steps will he take to give confidence to airports that their actions will be permitted and lawful? Drone licensing and registration are not due to come in until November 2019. Should not the Secretary of State accelerate the introduction of such provisions in all circumstances? Developing drone technology presents huge public policy challenges that demand a sweeping, cross-departmental response across Government. My fear is that the rhetoric we have heard from the Government today is many miles away from reality, and is it not stark-staringly obvious that this Secretary of State is not up to the job?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the rhetoric we have heard today is many miles away from reality: his rhetoric! Let me restate the point that this was a crime. It was an illegal act, and it had nothing to do with the laws that are in place. Somebody deliberately decided to disrupt Gatwick airport. It was a crime that will carry a sentence of up to life imprisonment when that person is caught, and I put it to the House that that maximum penalty is, in my view, appropriate to the crime. This is not a question of the laws not being in place; it is a question of catching the person who did this, and Sussex police, amply supported by the Met and our security agencies, are working very hard to achieve that.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about technology. Let me gently explain that the technology that was deployed with the help of the Ministry of Defence, for which we are grateful, to tackle the problem is new and unavailable elsewhere in the world. This country is at the forefront of developing systems that can combat this kind of issue, and a huge amount of work is ongoing to find out what is on the market and to assemble new kinds of systems, but there simply is not an off-the-shelf solution available to airports that they could buy tomorrow to provide protection against such attacks. A huge amount of work will now take place to ensure that that can happen, but he is simply ill-informed if he believes that there is some magic solution that was not put in place.
The third point is that other airports are now placing a huge amount of focus on ensuring that such things cannot happen again. Above all, however, we have put in place a mechanism to redeploy the MOD capability should such an event occur again. I hope that it does not, but we know how to deal with it if it happens again, and other airports around the world are coming to us asking, “What do we need to do?” That is the reality of what is happening, not the nonsense we have just heard from the Opposition spokesman.
As the Member of Parliament for Gatwick airport, I extend my thanks to everybody who worked so hard on 19 and 20 December to mitigate the deliberate criminal act that the Secretary of State correctly identified. One of my concerns is that the Ministry of Defence was not brought in until some 18 hours after the incident started on the Wednesday evening, so will the Secretary of State assure me that the deployment of the military technology will be more rapid if further such attacks are forthcoming?
I am grateful for the opportunity to reiterate my thanks to all those in and around Gatwick who worked so hard at an extremely difficult time for the airport. As for the deployment of the technology, the first thing to say is that it was not immediately apparent that we were dealing with anything more than irresponsible drone usage close to an airport, which has happened many times over the past few years. By the time it became clear that this was a malicious attack, the Government machine and the Ministry of Defence moved as quickly as possible to deploy a new kind of response to deal with the issue. Clear protocols are now in place that would enable the system to be deployed quickly, but I hope that that will not have to happen again.
I thank the Secretary of State for sharing the parts of the statement he felt like sharing in advance. He was previously warned about the need for tougher legislation by my predecessor as Scottish National party spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), the shadow Minister, by myself and by the British Airline Pilots’ Association, so why did he ignore those warnings and delay legislating in this area? What new evidence has actually emerged from the consultation confirming the need for additional enforcement powers, other than the blatant reaction to the Gatwick incident? How many of the 5,000 responses to the consultation related to enforcement?
How much was spent on overtime over the holiday period to get the consultation response document ready for the first day back so that the Secretary of State could pretend that he is suddenly in charge? How did the Government come up with a 400 feet-high and 1 km-wide exclusion zone? Using two different methods of measurement is a complete recipe for confusion. What consultation was undertaken at that time? What was BALPA’s view? What was the view of the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS when the previous exclusion zone was proposed? How has the Secretary of State now suddenly arrived at a 5 km exclusion zone? Why did the Government not meet the stated target of a draft Bill by summer 2018? What updates on that lack of progress did they ever give to Parliament?
Given that legislation regarding the use and deployment of drones is reserved to Westminster, what support will the UK Government offer to Scottish airports to allow them to comply with any changes? Will that include financial support? The Secretary of State mentioned that the Home Office is legislating for and developing the appropriate means of using the new technology, so which is the lead Department? Will all the legislation come in one new Bill? How do we know that the planned timetable will be met?
Under this Secretary of State’s watch, we have had the east coast mainline bail-out, the Northern rail fiasco, the Thameslink rail fiasco, delays to High Speed 2, contracts awarded to Carillion, and a ferry contract awarded to a company with no ferries. Today, his Department could only muster 89 lorries out of a planned 150 for a pretend no-deal scenario planning exercise. When we factor in the drone legislation fiasco, when is he going to move aside?
Well, it is difficult to tell whether we got more nonsense today from the SNP or from Labour. The hon. Gentleman appears not to have noticed that we legislated last summer to tighten up the rules around drones. He asked whether we had been working overtime over the Christmas period. I have to say that the consultation response was finished before Christmas, work on draft clauses for the drones Bill is substantially completed, and we have now brought forward this, which was well prepared over many months, so that question was nonsense as well.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the approach to the exclusion zone around airports. We judge that it is necessary to provide as much protection as possible to the flight path into and out of an airport, which is why we end up with something that looks more like the Transport for London sign, with bits sticking out either side to provide extra protection for the approach and landing areas, than a pure circle around the airport. As for Scottish airports, they have been a part of the discussions that I had over the Christmas period and will be a part of the discussions that Baroness Sugg will be having later this week.
I fully accept what the Secretary of State says about the adequacy of the laws and the deterrent effect of potential sentences. However, it is possible for anybody to go on the internet and buy a simple but substantial device that they could use not to try and close an airport, as in this case, but to fly into the engine intakes of a plane that was landing or taking off. What can he tell us about not only registration but, more importantly, the capability to prevent such an attack maliciously being mounted by someone who might well belong to a jihadist organisation and who will not be deterred by death, let alone by long prison sentences?
That is a serious point that we and the security services have been working on. We have been in conversation with airports about it for some considerable time, and two things are happening on that front. First, this country has moved to introduce a drone registration scheme, which will start later this year. Secondly, and more significantly, the European Aviation Safety Agency is moving towards a requirement, which I expect to be introduced within two to three years, for all drones to contain technology that allows them to be tracked and potentially to be stopped in critical areas.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but I wonder whether it closes the gate after the horse has bolted. BALPA has been warning about the rise in irresponsible use of drones close to aircraft and airports for years. An incident of this sort was surely foreseeable, and I am unsure whether the Secretary of State was saying that he was satisfied that the airport had proper and adequate plans to respond to such a risk. However, changes to regulations will mean nothing if we are unable to stop, catch and prosecute offenders. If such a crime is perpetrated in the future, what assurances can he give the House that it could not lead to further such disruption to services?
On the hon. Lady’s point about BALPA, we legislated last summer to make certain activities around airports illegal. That included the height at which a drone can be flown and the restricted area around an airport within which a drone could not be flown. She asked what would happen in a future incident. Right now, we have protocols in place to allow us to deploy the same equipment as was used at Gatwick if there were to be a repeat attack. The airline industry and the airport industry are working intensively to try to assemble mechanisms that could prevent such an attack from happening again. The reality is that there is not, and has not been, an off-the-shelf solution. That is now being worked on—the technology is being assembled and systems are being integrated—but there is no simple, off-the-peg solution available right now, beyond the capability that we have in place to protect UK airports.
In my constituency, which is under the Heathrow flight path, there are significant concerns about aircraft safety. I have written to the Secretary of State in the past, prior to the incident, about my concerns over drones. Does he recognise that far less attention is paid to mitigating risk outside airports than inside them? Does he agree that it is sheer folly to get on with expanding Heathrow and increasing the threat to communities such as mine, which will have more flights going over them, while this clear risk continues? Should we not seriously consider whether that is a sensible approach to take over such a densely populated area, when, as he says, the technology to provide greater safety simply does not exist at scale?
I know how strongly my right hon. Friend feels about the matter. Of course, the same issue would arise whether expansion took place at Gatwick, Stansted or Heathrow. The reality is that Heathrow has been ahead of most other airports in providing protection against drones, but even Heathrow has not had the perfect solution. That is why the systems that we now have in place could be deployed at Heathrow at short notice to provide protection for the airport.
I think it was Peel who said that the absence of crime, not the apprehension of criminals, was the test of a good force. What the hundreds of thousands of travellers wanted was for the disruption to be stopped. May I ask some very specific questions? Were there contingency plans already agreed with the MOD and the Home Office to protect our airports from drone incidents and others? If not, why not? If there were such plans, why did they not work? Were they not activated in time because of dithering, and was that the fault of the Secretary of State’s Department, the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office—or, indeed, the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary in No. 10? Which is it?
As we are hearing from around the world, protections against such a deliberate and disruptive attack are few and far between. The reality is that the Government and different Departments, including the MOD, moved very quickly to assemble a response of a different kind from any previous one, and they did so in a way that is now being looked at very carefully around the world.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that what we saw at Gatwick was criminal activity, and I welcome the actions that he has taken. My constituents are surrounded by airports at Southampton, Farnborough, Lasham and the Odiham RAF base. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with these smaller airports, which have real challenges when it comes to taking measures to protect themselves from such malicious attacks? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has said, such attacks threaten not only safety in the air, but residents on the ground.
That is why the measures we introduced last summer—to make it illegal to fly a drone close to an airport and to put restrictions on the height above which one can fly a drone—were applicable to the situation in most of the drone incidents that have occurred, namely irresponsible usage close to an airport. There were 97 such incidents last year. We will be sharing the experience of Gatwick, and indeed the technological developments, with airports such as Southampton. Such airports may want to take steps similar to those taken by bigger airports to protect themselves. As I say, this is an emerging technology.
What happened at Gatwick was, as the House knows, pretty damned scary. Wherever we travel in the world, passengers have an equal right to confidence and safe travel. Let us hope that we in the UK get the legislative framework right and work out how to take down such drones if they are hostile. I suggest that it would be in the best interests of travellers all over the world for us to share our knowledge, and perhaps to work towards some sort of international treaty governing the use, administration and stamping out of drones when they are in bad use.
I absolutely agree with that. We are already seeking to share our knowledge and experience, and I expect it is something that the International Civil Aviation Organisation will also want to pick up on. [Interruption.] Once again, the shadow Minister is rabbiting on from a sedentary position about EASA. It is Government policy to remain part of EASA, if we can, because in areas such as international aviation safety, we believe it is sensible to work internationally across borders.
The oldest commercial airport in the country is in Shoreham, in my constituency. This problem affects not just the large commercial airports, but the smaller ones too. Sussex police were greatly stretched when the incident happened, and I know that they greatly welcomed the offers of help from around the country, but there was concern about confusion over the lead Department. Was it Transport or the Home Office? Of course, later the Ministry of Defence was brought in as well. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that in future there will be a much better immediate, co-ordinated response?
The Secretary of State has spoken about the need to legislate, and about registering drones. The trouble is that most of them come in from China and, increasingly, a lot of them can be DIY built. The people who do that do not register, and they have no regard for regulations. Those drones will certainly not carry devices that make it possible to disable them, to ensure that they are not harmful near airports. What is he doing about that?
That is precisely why the technology becomes so important: for all the requirements that one puts into law, including around the technology that goes into drones, ultimately if people choose to act in a deliberate, disruptive and illegal way, the technology needs to be there to stop them. In respect of responsibility, the gold command was Sussex police, supported by the Metropolitan police and the security services. In Government, my Department took the lead.
The document to which the Secretary of State referred is called “Taking Flight”, but is it not true that his Government have taken flight over this issue? This is not a new issue that has suddenly arrived: BALPA has been arguing for greater protection for years. Indeed, almost three years ago I raised this issue with the then Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when I said,
“we have the current issue of drones near aircraft, which needs to be addressed in an air strategy. I hope that the Minister will do something about that before there is a critical problem.”—[Official Report, 20 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 357WH.]
The Minister of State said in that debate that he was
“wise enough not to stray into”—[Official Report, 20 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 361WH.]
those issues. Is it still wise not to have not done anything for more than three years?
Just prior to Christmas, I held a rural crime summit in Lavenham in my constituency. A key issue raised was hare coursing. I was pleased to learn that Suffolk constabulary had purchased a drone, which will be used to gather intelligence and will greatly enable us to fight back against this real menace in rural areas. Does the Secretary of State agree that although the incident with drones that we are discussing was criminal, the technology offers great potential for fighting back against criminality, and in particular those crimes with which we have historically struggled to deal?
I quite agree, which is why the strategy is about not only meeting the challenge of the careless, illegal or inappropriate use of drones but setting a direction to ensure that we allow the kind of usage that my hon. Friend talks about. As well as the inspection of infrastructure and policing, there are a whole variety of other ways in which drones can be a positive for our society.
The Secretary of State is right that what we are discussing was a crime, but it was an entirely foreseeable crime. I, too, asked the previous aviation Minister about this issue two and a half years ago. Is the truth not that these matters really should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence, because the consequences of bringing down a civil airliner of this kind are so huge? It may or may not have been the Secretary of State’s fault, but it was beyond the competence of his Department. It is far too serious to be dealt with by the Department for Transport.
I do not think it is a question of one Department or another: we have to work as a team. The truth is that the Ministry of Defence has and did have a really important role. The Home Office has a really important role in enforcement and licensing. The Department for Transport manages the use of airspace. It is a policy area in which the Government need to work as a team. My view is that the response, which brought three Departments together, was the right approach.
In my 30 years in the fire service, I attended two major aircraft incidents, one of which resulted in multiple fatalities. The whole House and the nation can be grateful for the actions taken at Gatwick airport, where there was no loss of life and no loss of aircraft. Despite the chaos for the travelling public, in the circumstances it has to be measured as good that there was no loss of aircraft and no loss of life. In the light of the events at Gatwick, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with airport operators throughout the United Kingdom about mitigating or preventing the malicious incursion of drones into operational airspace? We must bear in mind that those intent on bringing chaos and death to the air-travelling public will not respect exclusion zones, so on their own exclusion zones will not stop the drones.
That is the central point: we could have done everything imaginable in legal terms, but if somebody is determined to cause an attack of this kind, they will do so. It is now very much about understanding what technology can make a difference. In technological terms, this was very much a learning exercise, because there simply was not an off-the-shelf system available to deal with it. It took a lot of effort to work out what competencies were there and to assemble them in a way that could work. It was the first time that had been done anywhere in the world. We now understand more clearly how to deal with an attack such as this one, and others will have learned from it so that the kind of terrible events that my hon. Friend mentioned can never happen in such a situation.
I declare an interest: my boyfriend was one of those people who were supposed to land at Gatwick. Although he landed a few days later, he did so safely, and that was appreciated.
It is right that technological solutions must keep pace with the threats that we face. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to live-update geofencing to make sure that if people are accidentally flying a drone near a restricted airspace—around not only airports but defence installations—that drone will not be able to access that airspace and that it can be live-updated by the authorities to make sure that drones do not enter any restricted airspace?
This is one of the areas that is currently being worked on at a European level. We are working with EASA on this and we expect regulations to come forward during the implementation period that we would want to be part of in any case, because these technologies are made not just in one country. The point about geofencing is an important one, as is the ability to include technology that enables us to track a drone and to know which drone it is. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made the very real point that a number of these machines are assembled by amateurs on a fair scale, which is why we need the technology to take them down as well.
Who is responsible for inspecting airfields and airports for their security in matters such as this? Can we have a report in a few weeks’ time—I appreciate that not everything can be disclosed—that says that all major airports in the country have been inspected and have put in place the right measures to prevent or deter an incident such as that at Gatwick?
Most immediately, the security at the airport is the responsibility of the owners themselves, supported by my Department and by the national security agencies. Those discussions are already happening—they were happening within a matter of hours of the incident at Gatwick. I can assure the House that every airport is now taking active steps to look at what measures it can put in place, but the reality is that these are experimental systems and are not universally available yet. It will take a bit of time for other airports to get them in place. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence capability is there if necessary.
I urge the Secretary of State to look at the reports by the BBC’s Quentin Somerville who shows how drone attacks, using commercially available drones, have been using chemicals and explosive devices on the battlefields of Mosul. In many respects, we were fortunate—darn lucky—in that we had a wake-up call at Gatwick. May I suggest that the Secretary of State talks not only to the MOD but to NATO, where there is huge expertise about the use on the battlefield of drones, which can be bought commercially and used here by terrorists who want to attack us?
I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very well aware of that and, indeed, the security services have been providing advice to airports about this for some considerable time. They have provided advice specifically based on some of those experiences in the middle east, and this is something on which we work with them continuously.
There was some speculation in the press at the time that there may not have been any drones involved in this incident. Will the Secretary of State confirm how many malicious drones brought all this destruction to Gatwick, and can he tell us, in the light of this experience, what he is doing to make sure that his Department supports airports around the country in getting their contingency plans updated?
The report of there being no drone was a misspeak by a police officer. I have spoken to the chief constable since and to the airport chief executive—we talk regularly—and there is no question but that there was a drone or a small number of drones. Nobody is quite sure whether it was one, two or three, but it certainly was not a large number—probably only one. It made a return on a regular basis on many occasions just as the airport was about to reopen. On contingency work, I spoke to the operators of all the major airports on the day after this happened. Within a short period of time, after we understood what the issue was, police around the country were carrying out additional patrols around those airports. We have had regular discussions since. Baroness Sugg is holding a further meeting with them in a few days’ time to get an update on their plans. All of them have been briefed that we can provide the kind of support that the MOD provided at Gatwick if something happens there.
I was one of those tens of thousands of people whose journey was disrupted that day. After the initial relief that it had been rearranged in such an orderly way for me to get home to Edinburgh, which also had to cope with the knock-on effect, I was aghast that one of our major airports could be so vulnerable and that it took so long to get it back in play. That is an issue which, with respect, the Secretary of State will have to pay attention to and address. He said a few minutes ago that these incidents are few and far between, but, with respect, it would take only one to create a catastrophe and there has been an undermining of public confidence in the safety at our airports. Will he bring forward some report, some work to reassure the public, and, without in any way undermining security, detail how our passengers will be protected in our airports?
I am happy to do that to some degree, but the reality is that the response by the Ministry of Defence included some highly sensitive, confidential, secure equipment. That equipment is there to be deployed at other airports at short notice, should the need arise. I give the hon. Lady an undertaking that we are talking to all those airports about what additional measures they can put in place and are already putting in place to ensure that this cannot happen again. Until now, all the experience of drone incidents around the world has been of irresponsible drone usage. This is the first time that a drone has been deliberately used in a very clever way over a sustained period of time to disrupt an airport. Airports now need to ensure that they are ready to make sure that that cannot happen again.
I hope that it comes as no surprise to the Secretary of State that I am now the fourth member of the Defence Committee to rise. It comes as no surprise to the four members of that Select Committee present in this Chamber that this situation has arisen and that nothing was planned to deal with the consequences other than calling the Ministry of Defence, whose Ministers, I am disappointed to say, are not also on the Front Bench.
As a constituency MP, like many others here with airports within distance of their constituencies, I wonder whether the Secretary of State can give some assurances to my constituents, specifically in Whitecrook in the burgh of Clydebank. Does the Secretary of State recognise that disruptive technology is not new?
With all due respect to my hon. Friends and colleagues who were disrupted during the travel episode, this is also not just about the traveller. It is about the person living on the ground, if a tragic event should bring down a liner on top of a community represented by any of us. Fundamentally, this is not just about airports or aeroplanes. What should happen, as the Chair of the Select Committee himself asked, if someone should use a drone to attack a piece of infrastructure, whether it be an oil refinery or rig, or a large drone hits the front of a high-speed intercity train? The Secretary of State must recognise the consequences of this situation and the impact on people’s lives if nothing is done about it.
Of course. Many people around the world are trying to find the perfect anti-drone solutions but, as Gatwick airport discovered, the reality is that those technologies are still embryonic. We now have in place an assembly of systems that will enable us to deal with an incident such as this again, but there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of work is being done.