Examination of Witnesses

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:10 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Martin Drake, Steve Landells, Simon Bray, Richard Goodwin, Paul Watts and Richard Moriarty gave evidence.

Q We will now hear oral evidence from the British Airline Pilots Association, the Metropolitan police, the National Police Air Service and the UK Flight Safety Committee.

I welcome our witnesses; thank you for joining us. Could the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record? Shall we start with Mr Moriarty, who has already given evidence to us this afternoon?

Richard Moriarty:

I am Richard Moriarty, director of consumers and markets at the Civil Aviation Authority.

Paul Watts:

I am Paul Watts, chief pilot of the National Police Air Service.

Richard Goodwin:

I am Chief Inspector Richard Goodwin, airport commander at London City airport.

Simon Bray:

I am Simon Bray, commander of security at the Met, but I am also the National Police Chiefs Council lead for airport policing.

Steve Landells:

I am Steve Landells. I am a flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots Association.

Martin Drake:

I am Captain Martin Drake. I am a current 747 captain and I am also chairman of the security committee at the British Airline Pilots Association.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Q Good afternoon, gentlemen. Could you help me with the issue of shining or directing a laser at a vehicle? The Bill as drafted states that it will be an offence to direct

“a laser beam at a vehicle which is in the course of a journey, and…the laser beam dazzles or distracts a person with control of the vehicle.”

I am concerned about that, because I have never flown a plane and I have never, to my knowledge, had a laser shined at me. I am just thinking the matter through. Is that the totality of the thing that concerns you all, or are there other instances short of being dazzled or distracted that would cause you concern and cause you to think that something ought to be an offence? Also, although such an activity may have taken place, the driver or person in control of the vehicle might have no knowledge whatsoever of it having happened. I do not understand the experience. Does someone who is in control of a vehicle experience it only when their eyes are actually dazzled, or is there another perception of the event having taken place?

Steve Landells:

From a British airline pilots’ point of view, our main concern is the distraction as well as the dazzle. As it stands, the dazzle has to be part of the offence. Our view is that it would be better to have the offence being just the pointing of a laser at a vehicle, because from an aviation point of view, if you cannot prove the dazzle and distraction—if it is not reported or the police do not know where the aircraft is going—you may not end up with the second part of that offence.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Q Would you even have to know that it has happened for an offence to have taken place?

Steve Landells:

From our point of view in BALPA, no. It is about the act of shining a laser at the aircraft. If we see it, it will be reported, but if we do not see it, we would still like to see an offence there. The problem is that as the power of lasers gets greater and greater, there is a higher chance of injury occurring.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Q Thank you for that. Does anybody else want to comment on that aspect of this offence?

Paul Watts:

From a helicopter perspective, again the dazzle and the distraction are the main concern, especially as helicopters operate in a much lower-level environment than airliners, and we rely on flying visually and visually avoiding other aircraft, buildings and obstructions. We also share the concern about the power of lasers and the frequency range—the fact that it may be possible in the future to have lasers that are not even visible. Again, we would like to see it being about somebody attempting to shine a laser at an aircraft, rather than having to show that it dazzled and distracted the pilot.

Martin Drake:

It is possible to sustain an injury from a highly collimated laser—one where the beam is very narrow. It is possible to sustain an injury from that laser without having the dazzle and distract element. If it comes through your aircraft windscreen at a 90° angle, the dazzle and distract can be reduced, but if the pilot were to have that go into his eye, he could get retinal damage without getting the dazzle and distract element. I would say that that was fairly rare at the moment, but as the power of the lasers goes up and the frequency of the lasers changes, that is a concern that we have.

Simon Bray:

Obviously the dazzling and distracting is the effect on the driver, pilot or whoever is in the cab. That is where the harm and the potential danger are. As well as having a victim, the legislation enables us to investigate more readily to prove an offence. If it were merely in the general direction of a vehicle, that would be more tricky to prove unless we were at the other end of that particular laser and had an opportunity to get into more of an investigation at that end of it.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Q Although we are not specifically restricting this discussion to aviation, because it could be another vessel, I think BALPA has suggested in evidence to the Committee that it is equally important and significant when lasers are shone at air traffic control towers. Have we got a history of that happening? Is it a significant risk? Would you prefer to see the legislation embrace air traffic control towers, rather than just vehicles, as currently described?

Martin Drake:

There certainly is history of it in the USA, and I can think of a couple of times in the UK where a laser has been shone at the air traffic control tower. For an air traffic controller working the tower—that is the control bit that does the final approach and the controlling of the aircraft as they depart, so it is within close proximity of the airport—most of that is done visually. If his or her eyes were to be affected, it could reduce their capability of seeing aircraft close to the airport. They would then have to come off duty and be replaced fairly rapidly. It is not as common as shining at aircraft, but it does happen.

Steve Landells:

Can I expand on that slightly? It depends on the airport’s procedures, but I know of one airport where, if a laser is shone at the visual control tower, they take the visual controllers out of that tower. You effectively shut down the airfield.

Steve Landells:

They take the visual controllers out of the tower to protect them, and if that happens, the airport is effectively shut down.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Q What do you think should be happening to better control the availability of the devices themselves? What restrictions would you prefer to see in place to stop the devices being acquired?

Simon Bray:

There have been discussions about whether to deal with some of these items as offensive weapons. Clearly, if there is an intent to shine and to harm someone’s eyesight with one of these devices, you can deal with them in that way, provided you get the evidence behind it that demonstrates possession of an offensive weapon with intent to cause harm; likewise if you assault someone with a laser. The difficulty is investigating and proving those instances.

What the Bill does do is provide blanket legislation that is suitably serious—more so than the different sorts of legislation that we are having to use at the moment. It is an advance on what we have currently got. I definitely take the point that were we to have additional powers restricting sale and possession, it would be easier for us to deal with things before they take place.

Richard Goodwin:

Colleagues I have been working with in the Department for Transport are working with colleagues in the Department responsible for business employment, looking at potential import restrictions and some of the issues around how we control the sale of some of these lasers. That work has been going on for seven or eight years, and during that time the availability and power of lasers has increased and the cost has come down. There is a Department looking at that control now, and clearly we support that.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Finally, changing tack totally, can the police officers help me with an unrelated matter in the Bill about diversionary courses for road traffic offenders? Have you come prepared to speak about that at all? Could you give some indication of your experience of those courses, how effective they are and, just as importantly, the evidence base that you may or may not have on whether they are effective and reduce repeat offending? Are you able to comment on that?Q

Simon Bray:

It is not my area of expertise and I have never had to undergo one of those courses myself. There is a good look at diversionary methods at the moment. There are certainly plans to streamline the various diversionary methods and out-of-court disposals around the country. Clearly, that would fit in that overall picture, but it is not specifically traffic.

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

As you know, gentlemen, the CAA says that many of the incidents involving lasers are unreported and it is probable that there are many more than those of which we currently know. Is it your view that it is a growing problem? How do you think the proposed legislation will help with reporting? If you think it does not do enough, what more could it do?Q

Paul Watts:

I am from the National Police Air Service and we saw it as a growing problem, probably about three or four years ago. Over the last three years, we have averaged out at about 100 incidents a year, so it seems to have plateaued somewhat, but it has gone from a low level to a very high level. We would welcome any legislation that makes it easier to catch an offender, but we would also still like to see a reduction in the availability.

We did see a tailing off of offences after the first few prosecutions for endangering an aircraft came into play. Over London, there was a reduction in the number of times a laser was used and less of the casual targeting of an aircraft. That seems to have tailed off and we seem to be back to a level of use that seems fairly stable and fairly high. On average, about 100 offences a year are reported through our safety system.

Simon Bray:

I do not know whether Richard wishes to comment on the Met figures.

Richard Goodwin:

We took a view that this matter was so serious that, despite the fact that it is not currently a reportable and recordable offence under Home Office counting rules—the legislation will change that—on 1 April last year we started reporting all lasers reported to us as crimes in London. I know that colleagues in Scotland have done the same thing. Across the year, we are averaging around 100 to 120 incidents within London being reported to us. The CAA figures are slightly higher.

Colleagues from BALPA did a survey of their members, which indicates that the figures are drastically underreported. We can get into the reasons for that, but some of it could be the perception that as pilots they were not being treated as victims and the matter was not being taken seriously. The legislation will give the degree of gravity that we think the offence deserves and it will have an impact on the aviation community, pilots and captains. It will show them that we as the police will take it seriously, because we will have a consistent recording of all offences, particularly across aviation.

Richard Moriarty:

We at the Civil Aviation Authority would strongly support the measures. Our figures show that laser incidents are at about 1,500 a year. That is probably an underestimate, for reasons that have been suggested by other panel members. To put that in perspective, that is three or four incidents a day in and around UK airports. We have talked before about injury to pilots and often these attacks are during their peak workload—either landing or take off, in and around airports—so there is a real aviation and public safety aspect, which it is very important to get right. We would strongly support it for those reasons.

Beyond the Bill, we are interested in continuing to work with other authorities and Departments on other measures to complement this, whether through import controls or working with the police on offensive weapons. The good news is that the provisions in the Bill will send a very strong signal that we all take this risk very seriously.

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

Q Clearly, the use of these devices in the way you have described is malevolent, but have you made any assessment of how much of this is what might be described as irresponsible, thuggish behaviour, and how much is more serious than that? Potentially, we could be talking about devices that were used by some very serious criminals indeed. What is your assessment of that? How much is this people grabbing hold of these things and causing trouble, and how much of it is planned, plotted and serious?

Simon Bray:

The difficulty is that our detection rate of these offences so far has been pretty low. That is partly because of the legislation available to us. There is a range of it for the different areas of transport: the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 goes back many years on the railways, and air navigation orders are used in the policing environment for airports. In truth, the successes that we have had in prosecution have been where the National Police Air Service has been involved—we have our own helicopters, linking with our officers on the ground and so on.

One of the issues with the legislation that we have been able to use around distract and dazzle is that the offence under the air navigation orders has been not only not recordable, but not indictable. We have therefore not been able to use the full range of powers—entering premises in order to arrest someone or, once we have arrested them, going into premises to get evidence—and the proposed new offences will allow us the use of those powers. That is a real advance, which we welcome. We think that we will benefit from a defined power of stop and search around that. I have written to the Minister and had a response, but once the consultation goes live on that aspect we will certainly contribute to that debate, too.

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

Q Okay. But of course you would be able to search on suspicion following arrest.

Simon Bray:

Yes, indeed. That would be the case. As regards the type of people involved, we have not got the full range of knowledge because there have been so many offences that we have not been able to get to the bottom of and we have not been able to make those arrests and prosecutions. In some cases it will be malicious; in some cases it will be because people do not understand that it is a big problem. Again, one of the benefits of the legislation will be the opportunity to educate the public and law enforcement officers at the same time.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport)

Q I am interested in how we take further action to tackle reckless behaviour. You have said that, because of the previous legislation, it has been very difficult to get the numbers of offences that are actually being committed, but I imagine that, even if anecdotally, there is some evidence of serial offending in these cases of shining lasers at vehicles. Given that is the case, do you feel that there should be consideration within the work we are doing here on the Bill of future repeat offending to have further punishment?

Simon Bray:

This legislation will allow the courts to do that in any event. It is an offence triable either way, which can be dealt with with summary powers and at a higher level, potentially, with short terms of imprisonment and so on. The fact that it will be a recordable offence means that we will be able, or required, to record all instances of it, which will give us a greater level of data about patterns and intelligence on where these happenings are taking place.

Martin Drake:

The magistrates or judges can be informed by the Ministry of Justice and by the Crown Prosecution Service, which brings these prosecutions, of whether the offender has been prosecuted successfully before and, if they have, whether the case can be heard in the magistrates court or whether it is so serious that it needs to be pushed up to the Crown court. That can be done, given the span of punishments for somebody found guilty of that offence. Of course, there is also the question of the circumstances in which it occurred. If someone was using a laser slightly mischievously, that might be considered a lower offence, whereas if someone was doing that absolutely maliciously, it might be seen as a higher-level offence. The venue for the trial can be decided at the pre-trial hearing.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Transport)

I should say that justice is devolved to Scotland, but I was curious about your views. Thank you.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q I want to pick up remarks that I made on Second Reading about the seriousness of the offence. As the Bill is framed, it is an offence only if the person shines or directs a laser beam at a vehicle that is in the course of a journey. As police officers, do you have adequate powers if a person is assaulted with a laser when not in a vehicle? You are nodding.

Richard Goodwin:

If we are talking about retinal damage, we are talking about grievous bodily harm.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q Could you be clear on why those powers would not be adequate in the case of an aircraft in flight?

Richard Goodwin:

It is difficult to prove, over that distance, the person’s intent. They are arguably shining the laser at an object. It is very difficult to be accurate at that point. It may be a reckless consequence, so there is potential for that, but there are various scientific opinions on what damage can be done at certain distances and angles, and depending on the strength of the laser—bits and pieces like that. Having said that, if somebody shines a laser and a plane crashes, there is a lot of injury to a lot of people; the consequences at that end are obviously catastrophic.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q You have pre-empted what I was going to ask. Can I ask BALPA whether it is possible that an attack with a laser could cause the loss of an aeroplane?

Martin Drake:

Oh yes, absolutely. Most laser strikes happen within 3 miles of the threshold of the runway, when most aircraft are busy completing the due diligence checks that we do: “Are the wheels down? Are the flaps in the right place? Am I lined up with the runway?”—the things that pilots do all the time subconsciously. You approach at about 150 knots at that stage, so you are doing 2.5 miles a minute and are somewhere around the 1,000-foot mark. You are using all the visual cues that you get from the runway. The vast majority of these strikes happen at night, and you are using all lights. Your instruments are lit up. We have mostly cathode ray tube or LED instrumentation on the flight deck; there are very few aircraft still flying around with the old-fashioned dial-type instruments. The potential for a pilot to confuse whether he is looking at the centre line or a side set of lights—particularly in a crosswind, when you are canted over to deal with that—is huge. It is quite conceivable that if both pilots were affected by the dazzle effect at a critical stage of flight, they could attempt to land down the side of the runway, rather than down the centre of it.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q Could you remind us of the maximum capacity of the largest aeroplanes? How many people are on a big aeroplane now?

Martin Drake:

You could end up with about 520 on an A380.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q So it is quite conceivable that a person deliberately dazzling a pilot could put that many people’s lives at risk.

Martin Drake:

Potentially, yes.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q With that factor in mind, I have tabled an amendment to probe the Government’s position. It would double the term of imprisonment. The Bill sets out a term not exceeding five years; my amendment would take that to 10 years, because I had this point in mind. I should say that it is a probing amendment to provoke this conversation. What do you think the appropriate term of imprisonment should be for a deliberate attempt to dazzle at that point in the flight?

Martin Drake:

You are very much into a catastrophic eventuality. Might I draw your attention to the aircraft that crashed on the threshold of Heathrow during the hours of daylight—the 777 that had the fuel issue? Had that occurred at night, the pilots would have really struggled to make the decisions that they made, and to get the aeroplane where they did. Had the pilots been dazzled or distracted by a laser, I very much doubt that that would have been successful as it was.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q In the circumstances—I ask this to the police officers—what is the appropriate maximum punishment?

Simon Bray:

I would be reluctant to comment on what an appropriate sentence would be. We would recognise that it is being treated seriously and it is obviously a matter for the courts to determine how sentences given by Parliament should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. We would not want to put a figure on it, to be honest—[Interruption.] My colleague mentioned that you are potentially talking about something in the region of manslaughter for that type of offence.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q Why only manslaughter? Why not murder, if somebody has deliberately used a laser as a weapon to dazzle pilots?

Richard Goodwin:

If someone said, “Yes, I was trying to kill all the people on that plane and I did it,” then yes, absolutely.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q Commander Bray, you mentioned that you have written looking for a defined power for stop and search relating to lasers.

Simon Bray:

Yes.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q For that to work, would it need to be predicated on a redefinition of lasers in some way as an offensive weapon?

Simon Bray:

Not necessarily, no, in support of this Act, if we had a power—it would be sparingly used—to search individuals for lasers that had been used for the purposes of the offence under clause 22.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q If lasers were going to be defined in some way as offensive weapons, would the kind of laser need to be defined more closely?

Simon Bray:

If some of these lasers were to be classified as an offensive weapon as a matter of course, we could use existing legislation to stop and search for them in any event.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q But if there were to be a reclassification to make them offensive weapons, would that reclassification somehow need to define the strength of laser involved?

Simon Bray:

Yes.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q At the moment, there is no need to do that because the action of pointing a laser, however strong it is, at a vehicle is the offence. Presumably, without reclassifying them as offensive weapons, if you got your power of stop and search, that would be because of suspicion that the laser would be used for—or had been used for—that purpose. But if you were simply going to say that the possession of a laser could be the possession of an offensive weapon, would that need to define the strength of the laser?

Simon Bray:

You would have to have the definition of what is an offensive weapon clearly in the process of stopping and searching or when trying to work out whether it is of that type. You would not know unless you had the laser tested afterwards to see whether it met the criteria.

Richard Goodwin:

I am trying to rack my brains about reasonable excuse and lawful excuse, which is in the current offensive weapons legislation—why someone in a park at 10 o’clock at night has a laser in their pocket. I am slightly reluctant to go down the route of power because that is difficult for an operational officer at the time to understand and define. Some lasers come in as one thing and then turn out, when they are tested, to be something completely different. For me it is more about what that person intends to do with any laser, rather than about some of the more high-powered ones.

Paul Watts:

It is not necessarily the power that is causing the threat, but the dazzle and the distraction that we spoke about. That effect would come from a very large power range of lasers.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

Q Given your point that the power is not entirely relevant because the dazzle is so important, can you talk about the other equipment that exists with lasers today? Surveyors use lasers, and presumably there is a risk, so they must be cautious about how they use them. Driverless vehicles are likely to use lasers in different ways and various autonomous measuring equipment is likely to use lasers. Can you talk about the dangers that they pose and how they might be mitigated?

Steve Landells:

Public Health England says that lasers under about 20 milliwatts will not cause any eye damage—so, provided that they are not pointing up in the air, they are not going to dazzle and distract, and they will not cause eye damage if they happen to strike your eye. A normal blinking reaction will take into account a 20-milliwatt laser, but the problem is that the ones we are seeing now are 2,500 milliwatts or 4,000 milliwatts. They are the problem. Depending on the uses that they are put to—astronomers use them as well—and providing that they are at the lower end of the power range, if they are not being pointed in the air with driverless cars and things like that, maybe that is not an issue.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

Q Does the Bill affect people such as astronomers using them as you suggest?

Martin Drake:

We do not think so. We have done quite a bit of research on the legitimate use of laser technology, and boy, is it useful. Eye surgery uses lasers; you said surveying. There is a whole list of them. The equipment that uses those sorts of laser is designed to use the laser in that way, and it tends to have safety functions, so that if the laser strays, it shuts down, and of course it is used by trained people. The people who have those lasers fully understand their dangers and how to use them, and the Bill does talk about legitimate use. We are not in any way, shape or form saying that there are not really good reasons for using a laser. However, when they are used irresponsibly at the powers of laser that we are seeing, that gives us cause for concern. Most legitimate lasers do not have the powers that we are seeing. I say “most” because some do, but most of them do not have the powers that we are seeing, which people can quite happily buy over the internet and have delivered to their home.

Simon Bray:

There is a clear defence within the Bill, and that is something that we have been paying close attention to in terms of our investigations.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

Q We have heard that lasers are becoming more common, and you obviously support the proposed legislation. It is similar with drones, which are becoming more accessible and more common. Would you like to see proposals to ensure better regulation and safety with regard to the use of drones?

Steve Landells:

From BALPA’s point of view, we would certainly like to see more regulations and toughening up around drones. We understand that a lot of work is going on at the moment and there is a DFT consultation, but yes, it would be good to see drones in there.

Simon Bray:

Likewise, whatever regulation comes out and whatever changes there might be to navigation orders and so on, we would like a simple set of regulations for the police to get involved with enforcing.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Chief Inspector Goodwin, I think you were expressing some concern about the increase in sales of lasers recently, and the possible need to regulate their sale. Do we have any figures on recent sales of lasers? Has there been a significant increase recently, and do we have any sense of the split in sales between legitimate use—such as for eye surgery, which we just heard about—and illegitimate use?

Richard Goodwin:

I think what we are talking about is laser pens in particular. I suspect my colleagues from BALPA are probably better placed to go into the detail, because they have done some of their own market testing.

Martin Drake:

Yes, indeed. When we realised that lasers were becoming an issue, we decided to spend some time looking at what was available. In some parts of the world—in fact, just down the road here—you can go into the local market and buy a laser that purports to be 500 milliwatts. We bought three of those and had them tested, and they varied between 280 and 650 milliwatts. They are about $20, give or take, and they are readily available.

At the higher end—you tend not to be able to buy those on the street; you have to go to the internet—a quick search will show you that they are available. The price has fallen considerably. When we started 10 years ago, £700 would be what you would pay for the most powerful laser. You can buy a 5-watt laser today off the internet for around $269. I do not think anyone has done the numbers, but experience tells me they are probably out there and being used.

There are certain countries where you cannot post a laser to over the internet; the USA springs to mind. You can only buy legitimate lasers from legitimate sources in the US. One of the companies we have investigated clearly says on its website: “We cannot post these products to the USA”. They are out there and they are relatively easy to buy. The advertising is up there and if you are of that mind, you can burst balloons, set fire to matches and do all these lovely things, make your cat chase around the room with it. They are up there. The advertising is there, so there is a market.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q As a supplementary, if the legislation before us does not provide the redress that we are all urgently seeking, given the seriousness of this problem outlined by Mr Baker and others, what would be the appropriate follow-on action and within what timescale?

Martin Drake:

We would like to see some import control on the recreational lasers, if I can refer to them as recreational lasers rather than legitimate lasers. That is possible; we restrict the importation of all sorts of things, so I think that is doable. We have got the problem of the ones that are here already, but that is something we can address.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Do I detect there is a slight sense of urgency on this and we probably want to see how this legislation goes and if there is not an improvement, you would be looking to Government to review the situation again, with a view to taking further action? Is that a fair summary?

Martin Drake:

Absolutely. We started off with a laser that was about 1,200 milliwatts—we purchased one at 2,500 milliwatts. We sent it up to the University of Manchester and had both the power and collimation checked and it did what it said on the tin. We are seeing lasers today at 3.5 watts, 5 watts, and there is somebody claiming to sell you a 10-watt one. I am not quite sure how legitimate that particular advert is. Every so often, we are seeing the technology double—I am sure there is a rule for that. What gives us cause for concern is that as the power of these lasers goes up, the dazzle and distract effect on my colleagues could be such that you might not only incapacitate one pilot, you might incapacitate both of them. Then you have a problem on your hands.

At the moment, the laser normally comes through a side window and the pilot who happens to be sitting on that side is the one who takes the brunt of it and it is possible to hand over control to the other pilot and put some compensatory measures in place. We have shone the really bright ones at aircraft windows we have in the office—windows that have come off aeroplanes out of service—and it is really impressive to see what you can do even with the power of lasers that we have. We do see some urgency in this and we see the development going in the wrong direction. We would be seeking powers for the Government to do something.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Can I come to the police and the operational aspect of this? With the extra powers in this Bill, what confidence do you have as police officers in your colleagues’ ability to swiftly apprehend culprits?

Simon Bray:

There are limitations, come what may. There are delays between us getting the information from air traffic control through the pilots to being able to identify the people on the ground and the locations of the premises where people might be. It is difficult anyway, if you are in an aircraft coming at that speed and height, to identify specifically where that will be. That is why we have benefited from police helicopters getting involved. This will be a better reactive set of options than is currently the case. However, it does not allow us to be preventive and proactive in the way we would like. That is where we come into not just powers around stop and search—as I say, judiciously used—but also the whole bit about possessing these things and being able to access them in the first instance.

If our police officers come across a group of youths who have got these things, what are they there for? What are they going to be doing with these items? Playing with them, but in what way? There is potential harm among friends, let alone people they do not like. If they have got them, there is the potential use for damage and mischief.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Are you satisfied that the means you have to influence Government are sufficiently robust and flexible that if you were to speak to Ministers in a few months’ time, or after this legislation has gone through, because it was still a problem, that the system would react with the degree of seriousness that you suggest it should?

Simon Bray:

Both the Home Office and the Department for Transport have been keen to engage with us and to listen to what we say. They have worked with us closely on this, so I am confident that they will be listening and asking us questions.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q My final question—I do not know if you have a copy of the Bill in front of you—is on clause 22(2), which is about the defence that could be offered if someone did not intend to commit an offence and was exercising all due diligence. I am struggling a bit to imagine an astrologer near an airport or a surveyor working late at night on some building project. Who do you think clause 22(2) has in mind? It is probably right that it is in the Bill, but I am struggling to see who might legitimately use that defence.

Paul Watts:

We have seen lasers used in light displays. I could see a laser being used in a light display and someone not realising that it is in proximity to an aircraft flight path.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Does that happen often? Are there light displays that are permitted to take place near airports or flight paths?

Paul Watts:

Not necessarily near airports, but certainly in cities and large urban areas. You would not expect them on the flight path into a major airport, but you do see lasers used by nightclubs and the like.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

Q Are light displays a current issue for pilots?

Martin Drake:

Generally speaking, no. The laser displays tend to be very broad beam—there is little collimation to the lasers. Displays tend to be licensed if they are close to airports, and we are usually told when they are there, so that is not really the issue. Paris has a laser that spins around the Eiffel tower, and Greenwich has one that goes up the Greenwich meridian at the moment. Those are not a problem to us at all. They tend to be low-level and pointed down across the heads of the crowd rather than up into the air.

One thing the measure would address is search and rescue. They have a thing called a laser flare, which has a fan of laser that, again, is not well collimated. The search and rescue aircraft can see those things for miles, so if someone is bobbing around in a little dinghy or is stuck on the top of a hill it is really useful. Obviously someone would not be intending to dazzle and distract—they would be intending to be rescued. I think there are legitimate uses that would be absolutely fine.

Steve Landells:

Airliners tend to be going into a predictable place, whereas helicopter operators tend to operate in areas where you might not normally expect air traffic. It is probably not such a big issue for the airlines.

Simon Bray:

But for people who, for example, have a laser and want to shine it on the clouds, the big question is whether they have exercised all due diligence and taken all reasonable precautions. That is going to be the crux of it at court.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport)

Q May I move on to another subject? In the previous panel I asked Mr Moriarty to comment on the fact that there is nothing in the Bill relating to the regulation of drones. It is an omission from the Bill that has been commented on in a number of quarters. Do the rest of you have any observations on whether the Bill could be usefully extended to say something about drone safety? If so, what?

Steve Landells:

From BALPA’s point of view, we would like to see the Bill extended to include drones. The prime thing we would like to see is a mandatory registration process for drones. At the moment, anyone can buy a drone and fly it anywhere, and they do not have to take any responsibility for it. At the moment, if the police find a drone inside the environs of an airport or on the runway, they have no idea who that drone belongs to. We would really like to see a compulsory registration process.

Perhaps before first flight you would have to go online to get an unlock code. During that process we could get exposure to the rules and an online test for a drone operator. That would also mean that the operators would have an idea of what the rules were. A lot of the problems being caused by drones are through ignorance— 17 near-misses were reported between manned aircraft and drones last year—so we need to educate the people flying the drones that there are rules and regulations in place. It is a dangerous thing to do, and we think that a compulsory registration scheme would address a lot of the problems.

Simon Bray:

We would not disagree with that. We are mindful that there need to be restrictions around particular locations, as there are currently. However, in the case of aircraft, it matters not hugely where you put in those restrictions; it is the whole bit about the flight paths in and out that we have concerns about.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q I have a couple of quick questions. I was slightly concerned about the definition of a vehicle. In the Bill it says that it means

“any thing used for travel by land, water or air”.

Do you think it might be sensible to extend that slightly to include vehicles that are not used for travel such as bulldozers and very tall cranes in the scope? Does a police horse used for travel count as a vehicle? If a police horse in a public order situation were to be dazzled by lasers, should it be included? The definition is quite specific, so do you feel it might benefit from being widened a little?

Simon Bray:

I think it would be worth looking at. Things like police horses could be dealt with in different ways—cruelty to animals, assault of the police officers riding them and so on. It would be worth looking at that to ensure that the definition is suitably inclusive of some of the things you just mentioned.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q I do not know if you have had instances of people in tall cranes being dazzled, but tall construction cranes heave tons of stuff and could be quite dangerous. We have seen collapses in the past if someone has been distracted and got the angle wrong. It might seem obscure, but the purpose of the law is sometimes to deal with obscure situations.

Simon Bray:

Yes, indeed.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q It might be worth having a look. The other issue was on the definition of an aircraft being in flight. The Bill defines an aircraft as being in flight from

“the moment when it first moves for the purposes of take-off”.

Presumably that is from push-back and includes taxiing to the runways. However, it then says

“ending with the moment when it next comes to rest after landing.”

There can often be quite a lot of taxiing after it comes to rest. It waits five minutes for its gate to come free and then it taxis for 10 minutes—or 25 minutes if it is the wrong end of Heathrow airport. Do you think that definition is a problem? Obviously taxiing is not as dangerous, but it is a dangerous moment as well.

Martin Drake:

We did discuss that. The issue with taxiing is that you tend to taxi aircraft at a maximum speed of 10 to 15 mph and, if you do get dazzled, you can put the brakes on and stop. At that point, you can bring the whole thing to a graceful halt.

The definition of flight is a tricky one. If you look into it, I think there are about seven or eight definitions of flight. The current one that I think the International Civil Aviation Organisation accepts is doors closed for the purposes of a service to doors open at the end of that service. I think that covers all aspects of what you are considering.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q It might be easier to say “Any vehicle that is moving.”

Martin Drake:

It might very well.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q As you say, with a stationary vehicle there are dangers, but at the moment it moves and there is danger there is a problem.

Martin Drake:

Indeed. I take on board what you said about the cranes. That is something that had not occurred to us, I must confess. In our research we have come across train drivers being lasered—apparently it is great fun to let them go through a red light and watch the brakes come on. The Seacat, coming into Holyhead harbour, was lasered a couple of years ago. Again, I do not know why. They were trying to hit the bridge.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Q Yes, hovercraft are covered as a vessel.

Martin Drake:

Yes. These are not in the scope of the Bill, but we have come across goalkeepers being lasered when an important penalty is to be taken, and we have heard of referees being lasered. It is a transport Bill, so it is not within the scope of that, and I know the police have powers to deal with it, but it is a growing problem.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q Captain Drake, you mentioned that you have got windows in your office from which you have had spectacular effects when you have shone lasers at them. For the purposes of public education, have you considered letting some videos go out there to wherever to show us what happens?

Martin Drake:

We have, yes. There is some nervousness about publicising what happens because countries where that has been done have seen a spike in events. That may be a cost we have to bear: we may have to see a spike in events then to see a contraction. We could do that—it is a very sensible idea.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Q It is sensible, apart from the side effect that we know there might be spikes afterwards, so we might need to think about it again.

Martin Drake:

Yes, indeed.

There are no further questions from members of the Committee. I thank the witnesses for their evidence, time and co-operation. That has been most helpful. I ask you to remain seated for just a moment while I invite the Whip to move the Adjournment. Line-by-line consideration of the Bill will begin at 11.30 am on Thursday in Committee Room 10.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Jackie Doyle-Price.)

Adjourned till Thursday 16 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.