I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We can be proud of the safety culture across our transport sector in recent years, but we cannot be complacent and we want to maintain and improve safety standards. That is why we have to look at new areas where legislation is needed, and one of them is strengthening the rules against the minority of thoroughly irresponsible people who shine lasers at aircraft. At the same time, we will make it an offence to shine a laser at cars, trains, ships and air traffic control for the first time.
Will not the Bill throw into doubt the long-established police practice of an officer on foot jumping into the highway and waving a torch at a motorist in order to stop a vehicle? Would that not be an offence under the Bill because a strict liability offence is proposed, as I understand it, or does my right hon. Friend expect the police to have to pray for salvation and to rely on clause 1(2) to argue that they have a defence?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point, which may have been a request to join the Committee and argue about it in great detail. I argue that any potential law and order intervention would judge there to be a key difference between a torch and the modern laser pen that is causing such issues and on which, particularly in relation to aircraft, we need the law to be substantially strengthened.
I am sorry to labour the point, and I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. That is what I initially thought would be the answer, but if we look at the Bill, we can see that a laser beam is defined in clause 3 as
“a beam of coherent light produced by a device of any kind”— in other words, a torch.
I am not a physicist, but I think the key word is “coherent”, in that a beam is coherent if it focuses the light in a way that represents a danger to the public. As I have said, I encourage my right hon. Friend to join the Bill Committee—this may be one of the issues that are well worth debating—and I have no doubt that my colleagues on the Treasury Bench will be delighted to offer him such an opportunity. It is a serious point, however, and we will double-check.
I am very grateful to the other place, which has done a detailed job of scrutiny. Amendments made there have removed ambiguity and extended the provisions beyond vehicles to include air traffic control facilities. I thank my noble Friend Baroness Sugg and those in the Lords who took part in debates on the Bill, and the external stakeholders, particularly the UK Laser Working Group, that have made an important contribution to shaping the legislation.
It is important to say that there are legitimate uses for lasers. They are used as alignment aids in the construction industry, by lecturers in classrooms and by astronomers in the course of their work. We intend to legislate not against the use of laser pointers at all, but instead against their illegitimate use. They can dazzle, distract or blind those in charge of a vehicle, with serious and even fatal consequences. We know that, in aviation, such incidents take place during take-off or landing, or when aircraft such as police helicopters are carrying out civil safety duties.
Back in 2003, 15 years ago, there had never been a reported case of a laser being shone at an aircraft. The following year there were six cases, and by 2008 there were 200. There are now 1,000 a year, as indeed there were last year. Thankfully no aircraft, train or road vehicle in this country has had an accident as a result of these dangerous and senseless acts, but it is all too easy to imagine the potential consequences—for instance, a pilot being blinded by a laser when trying to land a passenger jet, or a train driver being dazzled from a bridge and missing a signal as a result.
It is already an offence, under the Air Navigation Order 2016, to shine a light at an aircraft to dazzle or distract a pilot. However, the maximum penalty is a £2,500 fine, and we do not think the fact that this is a summary offence gives the police adequate powers to investigate and pursue it effectively. Offenders can also be prosecuted, under another air navigation order, for the offence of endangering an aircraft. That carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a £5,000 fine, but it involves legal complications. It is sometimes difficult to prove the endangerment of an aircraft.
The Bill will simplify the position. It is a straightforward measure, which will make it an offence for a person to shine or direct a laser beam towards a vehicle if it dazzles or distracts, or if the action is likely to dazzle or distract a person in control of a vehicle. It will extend to all transport modes, will give the police that the powers they need in order to investigate, and will provide penalties that reflect the seriousness of the offence. This will be an either-way offence, which means that it can be dealt with in the magistrates courts or, as an indictable offence, in the Crown court. It gives the police powers, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to enter a property for the purposes of arrest, and to search a property after an arrest. Those powers are not currently available to the authorities in respect of existing aviation offences. The maximum fine will be unlimited, and the maximum prison sentence will be five years. The Bill will extend to the whole United Kingdom. We have been working with the devolved Administrations, who are very supportive, and I am grateful to them for their co-operation.
As I said at the start of my speech, the Bill has already faced scrutiny in the other place, where it received strong cross-party support. It reaches us in much better shape as a result. One of the positive additions in the other place was the extension of the provisions to air traffic control, which has a key role in our aviation sector. It is right and proper for those who attempt to shine one of these devices at an air traffic control point to be treated in the same way. That is a constructive example of the way in which debate on Bills such as this can improve them.
The Bill has received widespread support from both the authorities and the transport industry. The British Airline Pilots Association has welcomed its reintroduction—it was, of course, debated before the general election, but had to be set aside because there was not enough time to proceed—saying that it is good news for transport safety. It has also been welcomed by airlines and airports, the National Police Chiefs Council, the National Police Air Service, the Military Aviation Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Rail Delivery Group, Public Health England, and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. That is a pretty good list of supporters.
Everyone agrees that we need to do something about this problem, and everyone agrees that the actions of the small number of individuals who behave in this way are utterly unacceptable. We must give our police the powers to deal with them in the toughest appropriate manner. I hope and believe that today, in the House, we can give our support to a measure that I believe is absolutely necessary for public safety, and whose time has come.
Labour fully supports the Bill. Our concerns about it were addressed as it made its way through the other place. However, this is not the first occasion on which I have had a strong sense of déjà vu when discussing legislation introduced during the current Session. The issues dealt with in this Bill, along with those in another two Bills that have been presented since June last year, were first put before the House more than a year ago as part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. The Prime Minister’s gamble in calling a snap election not only demolished her majority in this place, but had the knock-on effect of disrupting much of the business of Parliament. A host of important Bills, including the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, were dropped ahead of the election.
Having expended a great deal of parliamentary time and effort debating issues like those contained in this Bill, we were surprised to note that there was no reference to the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, the Government decided to take up even more parliamentary time by fragmenting the previously proposed legislation, splitting it between what became the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017 and the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. In fact, the Queen’s Speech made no mention of laser misuse, and it was only after Labour raised the issue with the Government during the debate on the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill that they introduced this Bill.
While Labour Members are happy to see these measures finally making their way into law, it is disappointing to note that 50% of the Government’s transport programme during the current Parliament has consisted of clauses taken from the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which should already have passed into law. Moreover, having introduced three separate Bills, the Government have yet to include a number of clauses from the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill that should be on the statute books by now. There has been no legislation on diversionary driving courses, and the clauses relating to air traffic services appear to have been axed as well.
All those facts only go to show that this minority Government are utterly out of ideas, and cannot competently deliver those that they attempt to recycle. It is astonishing that they are willing to take up so many hours of Parliament’s time with business that should have been dealt with a year ago, when such a vast number of pressing transport issues require our immediate attention. For example, we have heard nothing from them about what action they will take to address the crisis in local bus services, the collapsing rail franchising system, the huge disparities in regional transport investment, or the air pollution that is causing 50,000 premature deaths each year. This Bill could have given them an opportunity to legislate on drones. There were 70 reported near misses with aircraft in 2016, and the number is rising year on year, but they simply have not addressed the problem at the required pace.
While it is disappointing to see the Government drag their feet on important problems relating to the transport sector, it is nevertheless a good thing that they are listening to the Labour party and legislating on laser misuse. Worryingly, we have seen a sharp rise in the misuse of lasers in recent years. According to figures released by the Civil Aviation Authority, between 2009 and 2016 there was a 70% increase in the number of incidents in which a laser was shone at an aircraft in the UK. The British Transport Police reported 578 laser incidents between April 2011 and November 2017, an average of 96 each year.
It is currently an offence only to direct or shine any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot of the aircraft, with a maximum penalty fine of £2,500. A suspect can be imprisoned for up to five years under the Aviation Security Act 1982 if intent to damage or endanger the safety of aircraft can be proved. The Bill will extend the offence to other vehicles, remove the cap on the amount that offenders can be fined, and make it easier to prosecute offenders by removing the need to prove an intention to endanger a vehicle.
The Government have taken on board the points raised by my Labour colleagues in the other place about the definition of “laser beam” and the types of vehicles covered in the Bill, as well including a new clause making it an offence to shine a laser directly towards an air traffic control tower. The Opposition would like to put on record our gratitude for the work of our colleagues in the other place, particularly Lord Tunnicliffe, to make those significant improvements to the Bill. It is with pleasure that Labour can take responsibility for a piece of legislation that the Conservatives omitted from their programme for government and only introduced after heeding our calls. Indeed, when they did so, the work of Opposition spokespeople in the other place was required to get it into its current shape. If we were in government, we would have passed this legislation into law a year ago, and we would now be getting on with the business of implementing our policies to save local bus services, fix our railways, equalise the disparities in regional transport investment and address the air pollution crisis.
All the Conservative party has to offer are recycled bits of legislation and sticking plasters for an ailing transport system that is in need of major medical assistance. While I reiterate Labour’s full support for the Bill, the transport needs of the nation are many and varied, and, sadly, the totality of the Government’s legislative programme is utterly deficient in addressing them.
The shadow Secretary of State was untypically churlish, and I can only attribute that to the fact that since I left the Front Bench he has become more bombastic—I think he is missing me. He is well aware— indeed, in his final remarks he acknowledged this—that this is a Bill that any decent Government would introduce. As he said, it was the subject of considerable discussion when that earlier piece of proposed legislation was introduced and there has been a broad measure of support across the House about the need for such a measure.
The use of lasers for malevolent purposes has grown, as Andy McDonald described. These devices were virtually unknown until the early 2000s; in 2003, fewer than half a dozen cases were reported. As he said, however, by last year over 1,000 cases were reported in various ways and forms. The need for legislation is proven simply on the basis that we know that these things can be used by those with malevolent intent to do damage, and that they may well get access to a device that can be bought for as little as £1 on the internet, and then go about their vile business.
The bringing down of a plane is obviously one of the principal fears, but, as the Bill now recognises, there are others, too—other transport modes are vulnerable. Someone with one of these laser pens could direct it into the face of a driver of a heavy goods vehicle or at a train driver from a bridge, so it is right that the Bill addresses all the risks associated with the misuse of these devices.
As has been said, the Bill encourages the identification of such malevolence, introduces tougher penalties, and makes it easier for prosecutions to take place. There is an argument for extending the powers of the police still further by extending stop-and-search to, for example, people loitering on the edge of an airport or at a railway station with the clear intention of doing harm. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that when she sums up the debate.
“Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”
It is right that we should be cautious and fearful, but it is also right that we should be prepared, ready to deal with any threat to public safety. These pens can present such a threat; we know that from what all of the authorities report to us. The Bill is pertinent, prescient and it deserves the support of the whole House. I was proud to be—
I can tell that my right hon. Friend does not want me to conclude quite so promptly, and on that basis it would be ungenerous not to give way and so extend my peroration a little further.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and join him in praising the Government for introducing this measure, but will he include himself in the congratulations, as he was an excellent Transport Minister and had a large part to play in this matter coming before us before, but unfortunately, because of the election, the Bill did not proceed into law?
My right hon. Friend is very generous and, of course, absolutely right in all that he just said, and I was just waiting for him to say it; I acknowledge that praise and thank him sincerely for what he said. Yes, I was involved in the outset of this. The shadow Secretary of State and I rubbed along very well together when I was on the Front Bench—and we did some good work together, too—but I think it is a bit rich to say that we would not have thought of this if it was not for the Opposition. We had been discussing and planning this, considering it and plotting the right way forward, for a considerable time, and I have absolute faith in the Secretary of State and my successor as Minister to take this matter forward with the same kind of diligence and concentrated effort that my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight very generously attributed to me.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Hayes, and I join in the compliments to him: he certainly did have responsibility for the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill before June 2017 and also brought forward the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill after the last general election. He is renowned for working in a cohesive and friendly and collegiate manner, and I pay tribute to him for that.
This Bill is welcome and I am sure it will have the support of the whole House, but its progress sums up this UK Government. As we have heard, the Bill was part of the previous Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which fell because of the Government’s desperate general election strategy, so despite this new Bill supposedly being safety-critical, it is in fact the fourth Bill to be brought forward to cover the four main sections of VTAB. The timing therefore makes no sense.
We should also consider that today’s Chamber business was originally a Committee of the whole House sitting, to debate the Bill’s only two substantive clauses and the two clauses for definitions and extent to complete it. The whole House was supposed to discuss this four-clause Bill, yet following the Government’s taking action in Syria without a parliamentary vote, they refused to bring forward a substantive motion on Syria that the whole House could debate. That sums up the UK Government; it shows how they are padding out Government time, as the shadow Secretary of State said.
I served on the VTAB Committee and heard first hand from the British Airline Pilots Association—BALPA—about the incidents and risks associated with the shining of laser pens at pilots. We also heard about the need to consider air traffic control centres, because of the dangers of their staff being blinded, so it was very surprising that it was not until Report stage of this Bill that the Government included a clause to cover this aspect.
Was my hon. Friend as shocked as I was that it took the Government so long to react to BALPA’s warnings, particularly in respect of air traffic control centres?
I absolutely agree, and my hon. Friend makes the point well. He, too, served on the VTAB Committee and heard that evidence first hand. The shadow Secretary of State took credit for the Labour party for pushing on that issue, but I point out that I challenged the Transport Secretary on it in relation to the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Act 2017. We all knew how safety-critical and important the issue was and it beggars belief that we are still only at this stage.
Figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show that more than 11,000 incidents have been reported at airports over an eight-year period. That is clearly unacceptable, and although there has been a downward trend, some 1,258 incidents were reported in 2016, so the frequency of such incidents is still much too high. Following a survey that BALPA undertook of its members, it stated:
“half of our pilots reported having experienced a laser attack in the last 12 months. 15% said they had experienced three or more”.
That illustrates the extent of the problem. It is not surprising, given its size, that Heathrow has been the most targeted airport. Sadly, however, Glasgow airport has been the next most targeted airport. In 2016, the number of incidents there doubled to 83, compared with 151 attacks at Heathrow. Glasgow has one fifth the number of flights of Heathrow, but more than half the number of attacks. So, on one level, the scale of the problem is much greater in Glasgow.
I support the fact that the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government are taking seriously any actions that could endanger aircraft and their crew and passengers, and the Scottish Government are strongly supporting the Civil Aviation Authority’s efforts to publicise the dangers, as well as the efforts of Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to deal with those who maliciously direct lasers at aircraft and to ensure that they are prosecuted. As we heard from the VTAB Committee, the existing legislation is not robust enough in terms of the need to prove intent to endanger aircraft. I am therefore more than happy to lend my support to this Bill if it will help to provide the stick to impose penalties on those who undertake such attacks.
BALPA has provided further information on the risks from the attacks. For pilots, the major concerns surrounding a laser illumination are those of startle and distraction, but they might also suffer flash blindness, after-image and glare. BALPA advises that there are four progressive stages of seriousness: distraction, disruption, disorientation and even incapacitation. Bearing in mind the most serious effects, when there is a two-man crew, it might be possible to hand over control of the aircraft to the second pilot, but even that procedure would involve risk during take-off and landing, and of course, only a two-pilot aircraft would have that luxury. Single-man aircraft, particularly helicopters, have no such luxury. If those pilots are attacked, it is a matter of the utmost seriousness. In London, in particular, police helicopters are—let us not be kidded—a target for those with malicious intent. There were even 10 laser incidents involving air ambulances in 2016. The catastrophic consequences for an aircraft are pretty obvious, so it is a minor miracle, given that there have been 11,000 incidents, that there has not been a more serious outcome following what are to all intents and purposes laser attacks.
It is welcome that the Bill covers all vehicles. The British Transport police have confirmed an average of 100 attacks a year on trains, and anyone really wanting to cause mischief will always have easy access to the road network, where they can target any random driver on the roads. It is therefore welcome that the Bill picks up on road users as well. As I have said, this is a short Bill. As I intimated earlier, it is welcome that the Government have added clause 2, which relates to air traffic control. However, as the shadow Minister said, we also need to consider drones and the increasing danger that they present to aircraft when people use them around airports. We know that they are becoming cheaper and more accessible to people of all ages, and we really need to look at this.
We also need to look at controlling the sale of laser pens if we are going to reduce the incidence of their malicious use. Public Health England recommends that unqualified and untrained members of the public should not have access to lasers in excess of 1 mW without good reason. Despite this, it is easy to purchase hand-held lasers in excess of 4,000 times that capacity. I therefore support the fact that, following a call for evidence, the response from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirms that the Government will take action to improve the frequency and resourcing of enforcement activities at ports and borders with the aim of improving the safety of the market for laser pointers and increasing enforcement activities against their imports. It would be good if the Minister could advise us on the timescale for this welcome additional action.
Once the Bill is introduced, the Government will have to advise us on how they will review the effectiveness of these measures and how they will consider what additional steps might be required if these measures alone are insufficient to cut down on the incidence of laser attacks. The Bill is welcome, but I ask the UK Government to consider these other measures relating to the dangers to aircraft in particular. I look forward to at last getting the Bill through and moving forward.
I am always surprised by how many people are afraid of flying, given that travelling in a plane is one of the safest things anyone can do. Travelling by car, for example, is 100 times as risky per mile as travelling in an aircraft, and travelling by motorcycle is 3,000 times as likely to kill us. The journey to the airport is likely to be the most dangerous part of someone’s holiday. I was pleased to be able to join BALPA in welcoming the fact that 2017 was the safest year in history for commercial aviation. That did not happen by accident. A number of factors are involved, and the attention to detail has been important. There has always been an underlying culture of safety in the aviation industry, starting with the manufacture and maintenance of aircraft at the excellent companies we have in the UK such as Rolls-Royce, and including the training and professionalism of the crew, both on the flight deck and in the cabin, and the work done by air traffic control. I would particularly like to recognise the work that NATS has done in keeping our skies safe. Indeed, we need to see more innovation in the way our airspace is designed and optimised.
When I first arrived in this House, I became a member of the Transport Select Committee under the indomitable Gwyneth Dunwoody. We went on a visit to the Civil Aviation Authority, and initially I was concerned to hear about the number of reports of incidents that had been brought to the CAA. It soon became clear, however, that aviation was so safe precisely because of that culture of reporting. For example, on one flight, the pilot and the co-pilot had both eaten the same lunch—I think that they had each had a prawn sandwich—and that had been recorded as a risk. Because of that recording, such mistakes could be addressed. Having that type of culture in the industry is important. Indeed, when I was the aviation Minister, I joined Dame Deirdre Hutton, the chair of the CAA, on a ramp check to see exactly how diligently the work of checking our aircraft was being done. That culture is now being looked at by the NHS, so that if there is a mistake or a near miss in a hospital, for example, it can be learned from rather than hidden, as has been the problem.
Today, we have been hearing about the new risk—namely, the misuse of lasers, which are now much more widely accessible. Indeed, I was given one a while ago as a free gift by a political party. In 2004, there were six reported incidents, but that figure increased to more than 1,000 in 2010. When I was aviation Minister, I met the chair of BALPA, Brendan O’Neal, who explained this to me at the same time as I was endeavouring to land a 747 in the simulator at Heathrow airport. He made it clear to me that people were concerned about this problem, because it is difficult to fly one of those things in those circumstances. He explained the danger to the aircraft and to the eyesight of the flight crews. Incidentally, I did not hit the control tower as I was coming in to land, unlike the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time. BALPA has stated that 55% of pilots reported an attack in the past 12 months, 4% of whom had reported six or more such attacks. I therefore welcome the Bill. The Secretary of State has described how it goes further than the current measures under article 225 of the Air Navigation Order 2016, in that it covers other vehicles, as well as air traffic control and taxiing aircraft, which were not previously covered.
There is a particular problem for police helicopters. Mr Ollie Dismore, the director of operations for the National Police Air Service, was quoted in The Yorkshire Post in 2006 as saying that Leeds-Bradford airport, which is in my region, was the UK’s third worst airport for laser attacks on aircraft. In his 23-year career, Mr Dismore had been targeted well over 20 times himself, and cited 108 reports of laser attacks on police helicopters in 2005. In the article, he described the unnerving experience of having the light bounce around the cockpit like a goldfish bowl while he was trying to fly the aircraft and look at the instruments. This is a particular problem at night, when the pilot’s pupils are dilated.
The good news is that technology in helicopters links the on-board camera to the mapping system, and the location of the perpetrator can be pinpointed and recorded. The person can even be photographed. Ground units have a good success rate of seizing the lasers and, depending on the severity of the attack, progressing the cases through the criminal justice system. Police helicopters have also been deployed in that way to tackle attacks on fixed-wing aircraft at locations such as Stansted, Gatwick and Manchester airports. I am pleased that the measures that fell last year when the election was called will now be put on the statute book, widening the scope of the vehicles protected and toughening the penalties that can be imposed on the criminals who carry out this dangerous, malicious activity.
I want to put on the record the heavy lifting done by my noble friend Baroness Sugg, who started off her career as a staffer at the European Parliament when I was there and has now risen to much greater heights that even I could aspire to. We appreciate the work that has been done and the improvements that the Lords have made to the Bill, and I look forward to the legislation getting on the statute book so that our skies can continue to be as safe as they are.
In answer to the point made by the shadow Secretary of State, Andy McDonald, that this measure has been pushed by the Labour Opposition, I say that success has many fathers and failure has none. I refer him to my private Member’s Bill of 2016, on the regulation of sales, ownership and illegal use of laser pens. The Bill was intended to make
“the sale, ownership and use of portable laser emitting devices with output power of more than 1 milliwatt unlawful in certain circumstances;
and for connected purposes.”
At that time, having looked at the matter since 2014, I was grateful to the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, and to my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, whom it is a pleasure to follow today. During that time he was a Transport Minister and then a Home Office Minister, and I had discussions with him about addressing the misuse of laser pens. More recently I have had discussions with Business Ministers, because the issue of the misuse of lasers goes across the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence. I have therefore spoken to and worked with a raft of Ministers to find a coherent strategy to address the misuse of laser pens.
My hon. Friend did indeed make those representations, which helped shape Government thinking. To add to the list of Departments involved in this work, I know that he would not want to miss out the Home Office. The Home Office has been engaged in this matter because, sadly, there is the potential for terrorists to take advantage of these simple devices with catastrophic consequences.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. I did make representations to him and had discussions with Home Office Ministers. Lastly, I want to thank the current Secretary of State for Transport for the time he gave me and for fully taking on board my concerns.
I of course welcome what is proposed in the Bill. When certain individuals are recklessly misusing laser pens, we want to ensure that the legislation is clear so that the police and our Crown Prosecution Service can prosecute them, and the previous legislation, the Air Navigation Order 2009, did not provide that clarity. According to the Civil Aviation Authority’s figures, there were 20 recorded incidents in 2005 and 746 in 2009. In 2010, there were 1,500. In 2011 there were 1,912, and in 2012 the number was 1,571. If we compare that with the number of convictions under article 222 of the Air Navigation Order, we see that there were only 26 convictions from 1,500 recorded incidents in 2010. In 2011, when 1,912 incidents were recorded by the CAA, there were 48 convictions. In 2014 the number of convictions was 18, but there were 1,447 incidents. It is quite clear that the legislation to address, deter and bring to account those responsible for the misuse of lasers—those who take part in this reckless activity—did not have the necessary and desired effect.
The legislation before us now, which will make the offence one of strict liability, meaning that the prosecution is not required to show intention, is absolutely right and proper. We need legislation to have the right deterrent effect, so the punishment needs to be commensurate with the seriousness of the office. Previously there was only a financial penalty, which was not the right way forward. Under the new measures, the penalties have been increased to include both financial penalties and a sentence of up to five years, which most certainly is the right way forward.
A body that has not been referred to yet is the parliamentary advisory council for transport safety, which wrote to me on
“On behalf of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (All-Party Parliamentary Group), I am writing with regards to your recent Private Member’s Bill on the use of laser pens.
Between 2009 and 2015, the Civil Aviation Authority recorded seventeen reports of laser pen attacks affecting air traffic control towers in the UK.”
That point is now being addressed in clause 2—clause 1 addresses the need for clarity in legislation by making the offence one of strict liability—and I am grateful that the Secretary of State has taken on board PACTS’s representations about infrastructure. It is a wonderful organisation and does excellent work to make transport safe for everyone.
Colleagues from across the House have referred to BALPA, which is an absolutely superb organisation. It wrote to me on
“On behalf of Britain’s 10,000 airline pilots I am pleased to offer BALPA’s support to you in respect of your bill to regulate the sale, ownership and usage of laser pens.”
The letter goes on to make a point that many people out there will be familiar with, which needs to be made again. It states:
We saw the reports in the media at the time. Any one of us could have been travelling on that plane, and we have citizens who use planes on a daily basis to travel between different parts of the world or internally within the United Kingdom. For a long time, the legislation was not fit to address this menace, and it is right and proper that we see support coming from the Scottish National party, from Labour and from the Conservative party, all working together. At the end of the day, we all have a fundamental duty to protect our citizens. Safety in transport is absolutely vital, and the Bill helps to address that. On that point, I thank BALPA and our pilots for what they do. They are exposed to risks, but they still do a brilliant job. I cannot read out BALPA’s letter in full, but I am more than happy to share it with colleagues.
I am also grateful to London City Airport, which wrote to me on
“Another solution is to create a licensing system where an importer, retailer or consumer must obtain a licence especially for high-powered laser pointers. This will allow the Government to maintain a register of sellers and users. The licence can include a criteria relating to training or insurance, thus improving the users’ awareness of the safe use of laser pointers.”
Although this is not in the Bill, I am pleased that, following my representations to the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries and other colleagues, in January the Government announced new measures to tackle the sale of unsafe laser pointers. My 2016 private Member’s Bill would have addressed the sale of laser pens over a certain output.
I welcome the Government’s announcement in January—no doubt the Minister will comment further on it—that they will strengthen safeguards to stop high-powered lasers entering the country, which is absolutely right and proper. As Alan Brown said, certain laser pointers of exceptionally high power have no legitimate purpose but are easily accessible in the United Kingdom and on the internet.
Secondly, the Government announced additional support to local authorities, ports and border teams to stop high-powered laser pointers entering the United Kingdom. Thirdly, they announced that they would work with manufacturers and retailers to improve laser pointer labelling. The Government have also looked at better policing of laser pointer sales by working with online sellers such as eBay. The problem is the same as with the purchasing of knives on the internet. We have to regulate the purchasing of laser pointers online.
Finally, the Government announced awareness raising of the risks associated with laser pointers, particularly among children, given that many do not know the dangers. We need to get the legislation right and, linked to that, we need to address the use of certain laser pens.
It would not be fair of me if I were not also to thank Heathrow Airport, which wrote to me on
“We would welcome any improvements to the regulation governing the sale, ownership and use high powered laser pointers, such that only the legitimate sale, ownership and use of such devices is permitted. We would also support any improvements to the Air Navigation Order (2016) which make it easier for the police to enforce the legislation”.
That, to a certain extent, is covered by clause 1.
Finally, I refer back to the representations from London City Airport, and I hope the Minister will take this point forward. When I tried to obtain information on the number of incidents there had been, the difficulty I had in trying to find out the number of convictions under different categories of the Air Navigation Orders is that the Crown Prosecution Service does not keep a record of that. The numbers I gave earlier therefore related to article 222 of the Air Navigation Order 2009. The letter from London City Airport therefore said:
“However, I believe a more informed approach based on better data-sharing between the Metropolitan Police, the Government, CAA and…airports will bring transparency and clarity on the scale of the problem. This will allow the Government to implement solutions accordingly.”
That would ensure that all the different organisations were working together, and it would ensure transparency of the data that was available.
I have been looking at this matter since 2014 and—this is not often mentioned—I would not have been able to get a lot of the data, research and freedom of information requests if not for my brilliant researcher Barry Watts, who no longer works for me after four years in Parliament. He has now gone on to do other things, but the research we have is down to our brilliant researchers. I thank every colleague in Parliament, including some former Ministers who have spoken today, because whenever I met them, they were absolutely brilliant in understanding that very point.
We have talked about issues with regard to airports, aeroplanes, infrastructure and railways, but in 2016 the defence air safety occurrence report recorded 250 laser-related incidents in the UK in the past five years that put our amazing, wonderful military personnel, and their work, in danger. Concerns have been raised across the spectrum, and the Bill is the right way forward, but I also ask the Minister to look at how it works over the coming years. If the Bill needs to be reviewed, and if further measures need to be taken, I ask her to work with the organisations involved to see how things can be further improved.
I thank the Minister and her team for listening and for taking on board the representations that have been made to me.
I do not propose to speak for quite as long as my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti but, of course, he has worked very hard on this issue through his private Member’s Bill, so I will whistle through my comments, many of which have been made already.
The Bill rightly covers all modes of transport, but I will confine my comments to aircraft. I spent much of my working life in aircraft engineering. I joined the Royal Air Force before moving to British Airways, where I spent more than 25 years in the industry. My hon. Friend Mr Goodwill talked about people who have an irrational fear of flying and, although I have 25 years in the industry and have flown hundreds of times as an engineer, I am somewhat frightened of flying too. I have spent far too long thinking about what could go wrong when I am in the air.
I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman’s concern about flying. I enjoy flying but my wife will not fly, so I do understand. Mr Goodwill talked about the danger per mile flown. If it were the danger per hour flown, I suspect the figures for motor travel and for flying might be a bit closer.
The hon. Gentleman might be right. I did some research on the likelihood of having an accident in an aeroplane, which is why I know that my fear is irrational. Taking probability out of it, a person would have to fly every day for 15,000 years to guarantee themselves on accident. I know that, but it does not stop my thinking about it when I hit a bit of turbulence or when I come in to land.
The first commercial flight was more than 100 years ago and, of course, this year we celebrate 100 years of the Royal Air Force. Across the world, aircraft have clocked up millions of flying hours, and lessons are constantly learned to ensure that our aircraft are as safe as possible. The last thing we need is people on the ground making what can sometimes be a dangerous form of travel even more dangerous than it needs to be.
I am not a pilot, but I know that aircraft are at their most vulnerable during take-off and landing, with by far the majority of incidents occurring during final descent and landing, so it will come as no surprise that the majority of fatalities in aircraft also happen at that time.
There is an airport on the edge of my constituency and an approach flightpath over residential areas and a school in my constituency, so this Bill is particularly relevant and important to my constituents. Aviation accidents are extremely rare and, as I have said, a person would have to fly every day for 15,000 years to guarantee themselves a crash, and we need to make sure we keep it that way. A recent report published by Boeing revealed that 48% of incidents that resulted in a fatality happened during take-off or landing. It is therefore imperative that pilots are not subjected to any unnecessary distractions while trying to land an aircraft.
If someone is foolish enough to shine a laser at an aircraft, it will have the most impact when the aircraft is coming in to land, which is the worst possible time for a pilot. I am reasonably sure that most people do not give that a second thought—why would they? Most people are not stupid enough to think it is clever to shine a light at a pilot as they come in to land. But not everyone is sensible, which is why we have to legislate. I know this has been referred to two or three times, but according to the British Airline Pilots Association there are an average of three to four reported laser attacks on aircraft daily. That simply cannot be allowed to continue.
We are talking about someone shining a laser pen at an aircraft, perhaps an Airbus A380, which could carry more than 500 passengers. Let us imagine someone shining a laser pen towards the flight deck just as the aircraft is on its final approach—the results could be catastrophic. Laser illuminations can startle and distract, and in some circumstances may result in temporary vision interference including include flash blindness, afterimage exposure and glare. I do not want to labour these points, as they have already been made, but according to the Civil Aviation Authority there has been a 70% increase in laser incidents since 2009. BAPLA surveyed its members in September 2017 and reported that 50% of pilots had experienced a laser attack in the previous 12 months, with 15% having experienced three or more.
Public Health England recommends that unqualified and untrained members of the public should not have access to lasers in excess of 1 milliwatt. However, it is easy to purchase lasers far in excess of that; a basic internet search showed that I could purchase a 200 milliwatt laser for as little as £30. The existing regulation, under the Air Navigation Order, states that a person must not “recklessly or negligently” endanger an aircraft. Evidencing and proving the endangerment of an aircraft is a difficult task for police officers, so the Bill is to be welcomed, because it will now make it an offence to “direct or shine” a laser beam that dazzles or distracts a driver, pilot or otherwise when a vehicle is “moving” or “ready to move”.
My only criticism is that this does not go far enough. Someone cannot endanger hundreds of lives on an aircraft, and potentially hundreds more on the ground, by accident. There are no mitigating circumstances. It is not a misunderstanding; this crime is premeditated, and perpetrators should be treated like the criminals they are. We know it will be difficult to catch someone in the act of endangering a vehicle, but in the event that we do and they are found guilty they will now face a maximum jail sentence of five years, an unlimited fine or both. That is to be welcomed. It is a step in the right direction. I do not think it goes far enough, but I am otherwise content with this Bill.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Royston Smith. I can offer him the name of an extremely competent hypnotherapist who will help him through his flight problems, if he would like. With a special word, she will keep her fee to about half of the normal one.
I support the Bill for all the positive reasons that everyone has given, but I have an additional personal reason for doing so. About two summers back, I was undertaking a parliamentary police course with the Met police. Late on one pleasant summer evening, I was a passenger in a Met police helicopter flying over Kingston, close to the Heathrow flight path. All of a sudden, the pilot shouted, “Duck, laser beam!” He swung the helicopter round through 90° so that the light could not come into the cabin, but before that had happened, unfortunately, the light had hit my left eye. The point has been made that this dazzles, but it does more than that—it damaged my eye.
As my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill pointed out, these police helicopters have fantastic cameras. The film is put up on to a screen which, in effect, has the “A-Z” on it. We hovered around and guided two police cars, which were carrying four police officers. Two of them went in the front door of this individual’s property and two went over the fence at the back. They collected the gentleman with his laser beam—I am exaggerating when I call him a “gentleman”. It was just like the movies.
As this individual was collected by the police, another voice broke in over the air traffic radio. It was the voice of a pilot on an incoming Virgin jumbo jet, which presumably had hundreds of passengers on board. He said, “I have broken in to say thank you. It happens to us as we come into Heathrow time after time after time, and they don’t get caught.”
The following day, I attended a clinic at the Moorfields Eye Hospital, where I was informed that my eye had been damaged, but that it would heal. As I have said, these lasers do not just dazzle; they do damage to the eyes. Wherever someone is, if they are hit by one of these lights, they get their eye damaged.
I found it astonishing that anyone would be stupid enough to deliberately risk damaging another person’s eye, let alone that of a pilot in a plane or helicopter flying over a tightly built-up area such as Kingston. Additionally, I am amazed to find that police helicopters are targeted. I would have thought that people would have to be remarkably stupid to do that, particularly knowing that these cameras are there; the word “Police” is written right along the helicopter and this person must have seen it. So stupidity reigned, and that resulted in this person being collected.
Beyond that is a point that has been made several times: I am staggered that anybody would want to damage the eyesight of a pilot of a passenger plane running into Heathrow, as this Virgin plane was. As I said, there will have been hundreds of people on that plane, and if that idiot had targeted the pilots, he could have damaged the landing of that aircraft, with the potential loss of hundreds of lives.
I was not told the name of the individual, because I would have liked to have paid him a visit. On seeing the film—my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned this—he pleaded guilty, but the fine was not effective enough. The Bill will help to address that, so I have my own special reason for supporting it. [Interruption.]
I join colleagues in congratulating hon. Members from both sides of the House who have made knowledgeable contributions in this interesting debate. In particular, I thank Sir Paul Beresford for his deeply personal, moving and thoughtful contribution.
As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State alluded to earlier, Labour supports this uncontroversial Bill. We agree that the growing misuse of lasers is a problem that needs to be dealt with swiftly. Due to the sheer number of laser attacks on aircraft and other vehicles in recent years, along with the growing power of laser pointers, we support legislative steps to make it a strict liability offence to shine a laser into the eyes of pilots and drivers when in control of vehicles. It is important to place on record the fact that although attacks on aircraft are by far the most common form of laser attack, incidents on railways and on shipping vessels have been reported.
I would also reaffirm our thanks to Labour colleagues in the other place who worked hard on this Bill by tightening up its language and definitions, as well as by gaining clarifications and important concessions from Ministers. There was a heated debate among Members of the other place about whether horse-drawn carriages and submarines should have been covered by the Bill—we thank them for that. Some of our learned Labour colleagues in the other place were more than qualified to speak about this topic, as one is a former airline pilot and another the president of the British Airline Pilots Association. I pay particular tribute to them for their work on this issue, and we thank the Government for the technical amendments that they tabled in response to the concessions that we won.
I reiterate the point that our colleagues in the other place made about enforcement. We have over 21,000 fewer police officers compared with in 2010. We will raise further questions in Committee about whether the law will be enforced effectively by what I must say are already stretched police forces.
We support the Bill because of the concessions won by Labour peers in the House of Lords. We welcome steps to combat the growing problem of laser misuse and to protect the safety of pilots, drivers and passengers. We look forward to our deliberations in Committee.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out, the Bill is an aspect of the Government’s important role of improving safety throughout the transport network. The Bill may be short, but I am sure we all agree that it is important.
Let me address the points raised by Members. First, I recognise all the work to prepare the Bill and get it to this stage that was undertaken under my right hon. Friend and mentor Mr Hayes when he was a Minister in the Department. He made a valid point about police stop-and-search powers. It is worth noting that the police already have the power to stop and search for laser pointers if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the pointer is intended to be used to cause injury, and that is because the pointer will meet the definition of an offensive weapon in such circumstances. That covers the more serious instances of laser pointer misuse.
The Government are clear that, when used correctly, the power of stop-and-search is vital in the fight against crime. However, when it is misused, stop-and-search can be counterproductive. The Home Office is conducting a review on achieving greater transparency, community involvement and police accountability in the use of stop-and-search. While that work takes place, it would not be appropriate to consult on extending the power of stop-and-search to cover lasers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her generous remarks. I take her point, and I of course understand why she made it, but perhaps she might make gentle overtures to the Home Office such that it might take this matter into account as part of that wider consideration of stop-and-search. It would be right to do that, given the broad agreement among those in the Chamber during this short debate.
There is no way that I could stand at the Dispatch Box and contradict my right hon. Friend, given that he spent many months preparing the Bill. No doubt his representations will be noted by the Home Office, and I will raise them with colleagues there personally.
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill for his contribution. I was a little nervous when I heard about his piloting skills; I am glad to see him safe and sound in the Chamber. He made valid points about the danger to pilots, air traffic controllers and taxiing aircrafts. He also recognised the work done by the CAA, which provides extra support and guidance for pilots in respect of eye health when they are subject to such attacks.
On the points made by Alan Brown and my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has responded following its call for evidence on the market for laser pointers. The Government have committed to take action to improve the frequency and resourcing of enforcement activities at ports and borders, with the aim of improving the safety of the market for laser pointers and increasing enforcement activities against the import of dangerous high-powered laser pointers. We have also committed to provide additional support for enforcement activities around the import of high-powered laser pointers. A grant of around £100,000 is available to local authorities so that they can increase checks and tests.
I appreciate that the Minister has tried to give us a bit more clarity, but the key questions are about the timescales for the provision of additional resources, and about what additional resources will be provided at which ports throughout the United Kingdom.
The additional resources will be provided not only by my Department, in the form of the £100,000 for local authorities, but by BEIS and border control agencies. Getting the Bill through Parliament is one step towards implementing the restrictions and deterring people from the dangerous use of laser pens. That in itself will raise awareness of the crime and how dangerous it is to point laser pens at different types of transport.
I now move on to the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, who has spent many years raising this issue, including through a private Member’s Bill. He has met many Ministers across many Departments and is a true champion of his constituency. He raised the valid point of how we collect accurate data about the number of offences that are committed across the many modes of transport. He is right to note that the Crown Prosecution Service does not keep full records of laser-related offences, and I will take that point up with my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. I hope that he will be patient while yet another Minister tries to address one of his passionate interests by getting a Bill through Parliament.
My hon. Friend Royston Smith has huge experience of this matter, which he was able to convey to Members today. He is a strong champion not only for his constituency, but for pilots across this country. He raised valid points about the safety of pilots and on the maximum sentence of five years. Five years represents the maximum prison term and that would be imposed only in the most serious cases. With such offences, it is important that we have an effective deterrent, and the penalty is in line with those for similar existing offences, such as endangering an aircraft, which also carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison under the Air Navigation Order 2016.
The safety and security of the travelling public will always be a priority for the Government. Given that more than 1,000 attacks on aircraft are reported each year, in addition to those on other modes of transport, we have a duty to act. The new offences will act as a deterrent to prevent these dangerous incidents from happening in the first place, but if they do occur, our proposals will help the police to bring offenders to justice.
We have had a good debate, and I am pleased that there is cross-party support for the Bill. Again, I acknowledge the work undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. I acknowledge, too, all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby did as aviation Minister. Of course, I also recognise the work of my noble Friend Baroness Sugg in successfully steering the Bill through the other place, and of the UK laser working group. I am grateful to everybody who has been involved in the debate, and I hope that I have dealt with the points that have been raised. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to discussing it further at its later stages.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.