Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 9th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative 6:13 pm, 9th January 2018

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, particularly as he knows so much about the details of the military aspect.

I welcome the Bill and am pleased that it has been taken forward, but I presume it is a holding measure ahead of the business department’s investigation into the market for lasers that is also currently under way. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree that, once that process is concluded, she and her officials will re-examine this legislation and, where appropriate, introduce consolidation measures. The Bill, while welcome, is not sufficient in itself because it leaves a lot to chance. The illicit use of lasers is growing year on year and the dangers are becoming more apparent. I do not declare an interest as such but I am a private pilot and a former director of Newcastle airport, so I will confine my remarks to aviation and hope that that will be understood.

There are particular dangers in aviation when lasers are directed at aeroplanes. These threats can be both while the plane is in the air and when it is on the ground, either taxiing or stationary. UK airports are recording laser attacks daily, and the number is increasing. In 2016 alone, there were nearly 1,500 such matters reported. Although, luckily, most of these did not cause health issues, we have evidence from elsewhere in the world where these matters are also being considered of serious injury to some pilots—some cases of retina damage. But the real problem here is not so much that health danger, although it exists, but the distraction, often at a critical moment of ascent, descent or manoeuvre, which at least complicates the work of pilots and presents dangers.

The statistics are, to my knowledge and belief, if anything understating the situation. The reporting mechanisms for these occurrences are far from clear. Within airport control zones, both on the ground and in the air, a report can be made, responded to and passed to the appropriate authorities quickly, but away from such zones—although these are not the majority of incidents—regional air traffic controllers do not always know how to handle reports, and the precise location of lasers is extremely difficult to determine from the air. We also have a separate military control in any event, but detecting and detaining someone using a laser—as we know, a laser could be as small as a fountain pen—by determining where they are located is virtually impossible, unless the source can be accurately pinpointed in some way. I am delighted to hear that the police are to be given extra powers to search suspects or premises when they have the intelligence to get close to where these events have occurred, but finding the locations alone is extremely difficult.

We have it in our hands to limit the sale of lasers, especially those of greater power than 1 milliwatt. Unfortunately, many people have been selling lasers which are described as low power but which in truth have been much greater in power. Anything greater than that level is a danger. We can limit the sale of knives, fireworks and acid, so why not lasers?

I congratulate the Civil Aviation Authority and the airport operators for their approach to education. They hold an annual UK Airports Safety Week in which community leaders and young people are told about the threats and dangers relating to the operation of aviation in the UK. These have been a great contribution, so education plays a part. Indeed, as I mentioned, other countries are also being plagued in this way, but they have taken very stern action. The United States has a federal offence relating to the abuse of lasers. In France, there are clear limits on the power of devices. In Switzerland and Canada, there are strict rules on the use of lasers.

I must add that there is a need to be clear on definitions. Strongly focused torches or LED equipment can also distract if pointed at vehicles or aeroplanes. We heard earlier that lasers have been in existence for only a few years. Before that, we were plagued by real nuisances where torches were used to try to distract pilots landing at our airports. Even before that, airguns and other weapons, as it were, were used to disrupt aviation. There have always been risks.

I also want to mention that there are legitimate uses for strong lights. We need to be sure, in our Committee stage at least, that we bear in mind the air navigation processes regarding emergency lighting. As I am sure noble Lords will know, when an airport has a radio communication issue with a plane, or there is some disruption, it has to turn to the use of coloured lights. A steady green light in aviation means that it is clear to land at an airport. A steady red light means that a plane must continue circling and not land. I have to say that sometimes, if we are not careful, there could be confusion, bearing in mind that nearly all the lasers that have been used to disrupt aviation have been either a green or a red light. We have to be very careful. This would not affect large airports as much, but in the case of smaller fields or facilities, it could be a problem.

I very much welcome this legislation as a start, but we must understand that it has to be refined and updated on a review basis. I am afraid that I am old enough to remember the Dangerous Dogs Act. That Act has little to do with aviation, of course, but it bothered me enormously when I was a Home Office Minister. Everyone clamoured for something to be done after nasty incidents had occurred in which adults and children were attacked by dogs. Our good intentions were soon thwarted by the lack of flexibility and the prescriptive nature of the legislation. We failed to understand that the best intentions and determination to legislate must follow full due diligence, otherwise the practical outcomes add up to less than we need to alleviate the original problem.