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UK Flight Ban: Sharm El Sheikh

Petition - Provision of Adequate, Ring-Fenced Funding for Mental Health Services – in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 13th December 2017.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs Wheeler.)

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking 9:27 pm, 13th December 2017

I would like to thank Mr Speaker for granting this important debate. I take a particular interest in the matter as a co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt. It is a privilege to serve alongside some excellent officers and Stephen Timms, the other co-chairman.

In November 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, took the decision to put at ban on UK flights direct to Sharm El Sheikh airport following the loss of a Russian plane on 30 October that year. He declared that the UK would work with the Egyptian Government and aviation authorities to ensure that Sharm El Sheikh airport was safe before relaxing the ban. Following an inspection from the UK’s Department for Transport, a 25-point plan was drawn up to ensure the safety of the airport. The Government of Egypt and the hotel industry in Sharm El Sheikh has invested around £20 million to implement all 25 points listed. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also issued official guidance that identifies the resort as in the green category, which means it is a very low-risk area. Yet despite the assurances from the Department for Transport and our Foreign Office, and with the UK’s 25-point plan now fully implemented, Sharm El Sheikh airport remains closed to UK flights.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Does it not come as a great surprise to my hon. Friend that the ban on flights to Tunisia, which is immediately opposite ISIL- infested beaches in Libya, was lifted, whereas the Sharm el Sheikh ban has not been lifted, although it was British expertise that helped to restore that airport to its current excellent status?

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

I agree with my hon. Friend. When the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt, of which the right hon. Member for East Ham and I are co-chairmen, visited the country recently, it was instructive to note that virtually everyone we met was aware of the continuing UK ban. Parliamentarians, Ministers and business people obviously knew that the UK was now encouraging tourism back to Tunisia, and they took it as a bit of an affront that we were not helping Egypt in a similar way. Given that the UK’s 25-point plan has been fully implemented, they find it very disappointing that Sharm El Sheikh airport remains closed to UK flights. The UK is now unique in being the only European country to operate such a ban: every other country in the EU allows flights to Sharm El Sheikh. The ban has had a significant economic impact on the resort’s tourist economy, which is highly reliant on the UK tourism trade. Hotels are operating at only 35% of capacity.

I understand that security experts in the UK and Egypt now agree that Sharm El Sheikh has one of the world’s most secure airports. In 2016, after three trips to the town, Sir Gerald Howarth, then an MP and chairman of the APPG, told UK travel companies that representatives of the Department for Transport had told him that they felt that the conditions to enable flights to resume had been met. To meet those conditions, Egypt has spent more than £20 million on improving security at the airport, replaced outdated equipment, trained 7,000 staff using the UK aviation security firm Restrata, run rigorous background checks on current staff, laid off more than 40% of the original staff and introduced a new biometric ID system for all airport employees. The Egyptian authorities have also invested £26 million in security at tourist hotspots and hotels across the nation.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

My parliamentary aide had the holiday of a lifetime in Sharm El Sheikh; after all, it was her honeymoon. I join the hon. Gentleman in highlighting the great bonus of the flights to home-grown tourist operators. If it is safe to do so, we should request their restart. We should encourage the Egyptian Government to continue their great protections for the human rights of Christians and those of other faiths, and ensure that the economy of Sharm El Sheikh can be reinvigorated and rejuvenated as a result of tourism from Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

I agree with every single point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Strategically, Sharm El Sheikh is one of the easiest tourist destinations to make secure, as it is only accessible either by air or by a single road, via a tunnel. These two entry points ensure that the area is easy to secure.

Before the flight ban, roughly 1 million British tourists visited Egypt each year, benefiting the economy by a minimum of £500 per tourist. At a conservative estimate, tourism was worth £500 million. Now only 350,000 British tourists are visiting annually, which represents a vast loss to the Egyptian economy. The number of British tourists flying to Sharm El Sheikh itself dropped from 900,000 in 2014 to just 231,000 in 2016.

The impact on the local economy is acute, with 70% of the dive centres in the Red sea area closing down by early 2016 and a further 20% no longer operating to full capacity. Things are now getting a little better owing to the reinstatement of flights by all other countries, but the impact on the local and national economy is still very significant. Tourism accounts for about 6% of Egypt’s GDP and employs 12% of the population.

The ban has also had an impact on the British economy, with UK airlines losing significant revenue, which they have sought to regain primarily by shifting flight capacity to the western Mediterranean. The recent collapse of Monarch airlines has very largely been attributed to the UK ban on flights to Sharm El Sheikh, and other airlines such as Thomson and Thomas Cook have also reported losses due to that ban.

The ban may also impact the UK economy in the long term. In PwC’s latest authoritative report on the global economic order, Egypt is moving up the rankings, thanks to the wider economic reforms of President Sisi and his Government, and Egypt is a valuable trading partner for the UK, as our trade envoy there will attest.

UK companies currently invest more in Egypt than the rest of the world put together, but on that recent trip to Egypt by the APPG, every single Egyptian businessman and politician was palpably upset, and indeed rather mystified, by the continuing UK flight ban and said it was a very real impediment to the good relations that ought to exist between our two great countries.

In summary, I would like to tell the House of early-day motion 468, recently tabled by myself and my co-chairman, the right hon. Member for East Ham, because it summarises this whole issue well, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply to its points:

“That this House
welcomes the successful implementation of the UK-Egyptian joint action plan and substantial investment in upgrading security at Sharm El Sheikh airport using UK expertise in transport and security services;
understands that Sharm El Sheikh airport is now considered by Department for Transport officials as one of the safest airports in the world;
further notes that the UK Foreign Office safety categorisation for Sharm El Sheikh is green meaning that it is assessed as safe;
acknowledges the reinstatement of flights to Sharm El Sheikh from other European countries including Germany, Italy and Belgium and the resumption of holiday flights from the UK to Tunisia;
and calls on the Government to review the situation urgently, taking account of updated security advice and to consider lifting immediately the ban on flights from the UK to Sharm El Sheikh.”

The early-day motion has had good support from across this House. I urge the Government to consider it carefully, and to come back to the House with a positive response.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham 9:38 pm, 13th December 2017

I associate myself with everything Mr Lord has said and congratulate him on securing the debate. We are co-chairs of the APPG on Egypt and were in that country last month, thanks to funding support primarily from the Egyptian Parliament, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which refers to that visit.

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly underlined, the No. 1 thing that almost everybody we met in Egypt wanted to talk to us about was the continuing ban on flights from the UK to Sharm El Sheikh, which has had such a devastating effect on the economy of Sharm El Sheikh and further afield. It is characterised by many in Egypt as the UK giving in to terrorism. That is how they think about it. They acknowledge that, yes, a terrible terrorist atrocity occurred—there is no question about that—and there is no doubt that there were serious weaknesses in security that enabled it to happen, but the fact that our ban is still in place is, to Egyptian eyes, a case of the UK caving in. They believe that the UK, above all countries, should not be caving in.

It is hard to understand why the ban is being kept. As the hon. Gentleman has set out, Egypt has invested heavily to implement all the recommendations on improving security that were made by international experts, most of whom were from the UK, and almost every other country has lifted its ban in response to that. Indeed, I noticed news reports this week that President Putin announced in Cairo on Monday that Russia would resume civilian flights to Egypt. It was of course a Russian passenger jet that was shot down. My understanding is that Russia is the only other country with a continuing ban. If that ban is lifted, only ours will remain in place. That is a puzzling position for us in the UK to get ourselves into.

Stability and prosperity in Egypt are key to stability in the region, and therefore greatly in the interests of the world as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman explained, UK tourism is starting to increase a bit now, but it is still less than half what it was before the ban was introduced. Jim Shannon rightly pointed out that British citizens love taking their holidays Sharm El Sheikh, and we are denying that opportunity to large numbers of UK citizens. The Egyptian economy is being damaged by this, as is the UK economy. The case of Monarch underlines that fact. No explanation has been provided, so we were unable to explain on our visit why the UK uniquely cannot lift its ban. I join the hon. Member for Woking and all those who have signed the early-day motion in urging the Minister to waste no time in lifting the ban.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport) 9:42 pm, 13th December 2017

My hon. Friend Mr Lord and Stephen Timms have a long-standing interest in Egypt, and I acknowledge their interest and their concern about this matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to say more about flights to Sharm El Sheikh.

Hon. Members will know that in addition to being appointed three times as Minister of State in the Department for Transport, I am also a former Security Minister. This is therefore a subject close to my heart, and a matter of profound importance. The security and safety of our citizens is perhaps our most significant duty of all as a Parliament and as a Government. To that end, I know that my hon. Friend and all those who have contributed to the debate would not expect any Government of any persuasion to do anything that in any way compromised the safety and security of UK citizens, whether here in our country or travelling abroad.

The House will know that, on 31 October 2015, following its departure from Sharm El Sheikh international airport to St Petersburg, Metrojet flight 9268 disintegrated above Northern Sinai. As a result, a total of 224 passengers and crew of various nationalities were killed. Following that event, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office returned UK nationals and changed its travel advice. It advised against all but essential travel by air to or from that location. That had the effect of airlines halting all direct air services between the UK and Sharm El Sheikh airport. Flights to the UK from other Egyptian airports, including Cairo, Luxor, Marsa Alam and Hurghada, were unaffected.

Two years on, that advice remains in place, although the Government keep travel advice under constant review. For example, we recently updated the travel advice in Tunisia following the Sousse attack in 2015 and the changed security situation there, albeit in very different circumstances. Daesh claimed responsibility for the Metrojet attack, and the Egyptian and Russian Governments announced that the aircraft was brought down by an act of terrorism, as President Sisi stated in February 2016. The Egyptian authorities’ investigation has not come to any firm conclusion regarding the exact events that preceded the attack, and no perpetrator has been caught.

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Woking and the right hon. Member for East Ham made the point that other countries have taken different decisions about resuming flights, which is true. Most flights to Sharm El Sheikh before the Metrojet crash were from the UK or Russia, however, and it is of course for each country to decide what security requirements they need to protect their citizens—it is not for me to comment on that—but the UK is working closely with the Egyptian Government to assess security at Egyptian airports. I can also say that the UK works with a number of other Governments to look at certain security situations, particularly where there are a large number of UK travellers, and I will say a bit more about the detail of that in the course of my remaining remarks.

Our experts on the ground in Egypt have been working closely with the Egyptian authorities since the Metrojet crash, and it has been acknowledged that the level of security at the airport has improved from where it was before—the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend both made that point. However, there is a wider range of security-related reasons, which the House would not expect me to go into in detail here, why we do not yet feel that we should resume flights.

The terrorism typified by this incident blights both Egypt and the United Kingdom, and the recent mosque attack in North Sinai serves as the latest reminder of the deplorable depths to which terrorist groups are willing to stoop in Egypt. The Prime Minister recently expressed her condolences to President Sisi over that attack, as well as her solidarity and support in the face of such a common threat. Egypt has long played a crucial role in fighting terrorism, and we stand resolutely by Egypt in that fight.

Let me be absolutely clear that this Government’s top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals and those flying into the UK, based on all the information we have available to us. The House will know that aviation remains a target for terrorist groups and that the threat is constantly evolving. We must respond accordingly to ensure that the protection of the public against those who would do us harm is as certain as possible. I emphasise that that is about both detection equipment at airports, which is changing and improving all the time, and the protocols in place at airports—training, management and how equipment is deployed. All those things have a profound effect on the safety of an airport, and we are working in all those areas with countries across the world to ensure that they can be their best and do their best.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

The Minister is absolutely right that being vigilant about the wellbeing of UK citizens is the both his first duty and that of the Government. Is he able to shed any light on why the assessment being made by the UK Government is different from the ones being made by other Governments including, it now seems, the Russian Government?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I made the point briefly a moment ago that the principle source of tourism to Sharm El Sheikh before the crash came from Russia and the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is the United Kingdom and Russia that are yet to resume flights. As I said before, it is not appropriate for me to go into the details of the precise security situation, and the House would not want me to. It is fair to say that, although we acknowledge that significant improvements have been made and we have been working on the ground with the Egyptian authorities, the prevailing situation in Egypt, illustrated a moment ago by reference to the recent atrocity, is difficult. It is clear to us that airports remain a target for terrorists.

Having said that, let me be equally clear that the Government wish to see the resumption of flights to the resort as soon as it is safe to do so. We understand the economic impact—the point has been made forcefully and persuasively by the contributors to the debate—of the absence of flights on the Egyptian economy, and we know that tourism is important to Egypt. Egypt, as I have already said, is an important partner in the fight against terrorism.

In the meantime, UK visitors continue to enjoy the abundant attractions on offer at other resorts and sites throughout Egypt, and I am delighted that more than 226,000 British tourists visited Egypt between January and September 2017, a 31% increase on the same period last year. UK tourists have been worth more than $220 million to the Egyptian economy so far this year, so people are travelling to Egypt in greater numbers. The shock and fear that people understandably felt deterred them from travelling to anywhere in Egypt, and we are pleased that people are returning.

We work closely and productively with the Egyptian authorities. My officials are working with their counterparts on the ground to share their expertise in establishing effective security arrangements, and there has been good progress in improving security at Sharm El Sheikh airport and other Egyptian airports that fly to the UK. My officials have visited and advised all those airports on a regular basis over the past two years. The Government are committed to supporting the Egyptian Government to improve aviation security. We have a common fight against terrorism, and it is therefore our common aim to improve aviation security.

My Department’s global work on aviation security is an important part of the Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy to keep our citizens safe wherever they are in the world. As we have worked with the Egyptian authorities, we are working with authorities in a number of other places in the areas that I have briefly outlined. It is not only about the provision of good equipment; many other improvements can be made to secure an airport.

With more British experts working side by side with host nations in the most vulnerable locations because we more than doubled our spending on aviation security in the spending review, we can reasonably say that we have delivered on our commitment in the strategic defence and security review.

The Prime Minister led the way last year in pushing for the adoption of the first ever United Nations Security Council resolution on aviation security, which has recently been developed into a global aviation security plan that the Government are strongly supporting. My Department’s enlarged global network of aviation security experts works in partnership with many host states to strengthen the global aviation security system by identifying vulnerabilities in aviation security regimes and developing options to mitigate each vulnerability in order to deliver improvements and maintain quality assurance. This drives up both capacity and capability. As I said earlier, it is not enough just to build capacity; we have to build capability.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

I understand that Russia announced this week that it is lifting its ban on civilian flights. Is there any other airport in the world to which the UK uniquely bans flights? That appears to be the position with Sharm El Sheikh.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Russia has not resumed flights, either, so the situation is not quite unique. We have not uniquely continued to maintain the ban on flights. The truth is that each case has to be considered on its particular circumstances and merits. Airport security is complex, for the reasons I have mentioned. We analyse the security situation at airports in a wide range of countries and deploy resource to those countries. We advise and deploy expertise in those places. The circumstances in each of them are different, although there are common themes, of course. It would be too simplistic to say that a formula can simply be rolled out, regardless of the prevailing local circumstances. The threats of course vary from place to place as well, so the context is also the threat, not just the circumstances of the airport itself.

My Department’s capacity development programme aims to deliver long-term sustainable change that will improve airport security, resulting in high-quality security screening. We will continue to work closely with the Egyptian Government on aviation security in Egypt. Our ongoing work includes providing training for Egyptian airport security staff, as well as other advice and support. My Department has also provided additional explosive trace detection capabilities to the Egyptian Government for use by carriers flying to the UK. We have Department for Transport aviation security experts based in Egypt, reflecting the Government’s commitment to supporting the provision of good security there. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently met his Egyptian counterpart to discuss aviation security, and high levels of engagement between our two nations continue.

The Government are very grateful to the Egyptian Government for their full co-operation and the impressive efforts they have made to improve aviation security. The UK values its important relationship with Egypt and its commitment to building on our co-operation in supporting the development of Egyptian aviation security. I am sure the House will understand that it is long-standing Government policy not to comment on, or publish, details on security matters. I am therefore limited on what I can say to a greater degree than that, but I look forward to the return of flights to Sharm El Sheikh once the Government can be sure it is safe. I can assure the House that the Government are working hard to facilitate that outcome, which I know we all want to see.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.