Offence of shining or directing a laser at a vehicle

Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 21st March 2017.

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Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:45 pm, 21st March 2017

I beg to move amendment 25, in clause 22, page 16, line 39, leave out from “and” to end of the subsection and insert

“or

(b) he or she shines or directs a laser beam at a fixed installation involved in traffic control.”

This amendment would ensure the act of shining a laser itself is the offence without the need for explicitly proving persons with control of a vehicle were dazzled. The replacement lines also ensure that it is an offence for persons shining a laser at traffic control towers.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 10, in clause 22, page 17, line 9, leave out “five” and insert “ten”.

This amendment would increase the maximum term of imprisonment from five years to 10 years for conviction on indictment for the offence of shining or directing a laser at a vehicle.

Amendment 26, in clause 22, page 17, line 17, after “take-off,” insert “including during taxiing”.

This amendment clarifies that shining a laser at a plane while it is being taxied around an airport is covered under the offence.

Amendment 27, in clause 22, page 17, leave out lines 19 to 23.

Consequential amendment following amendment 25 to Clause 22.

New clause 15—Power of constable to stop and search: lasers—

In section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, after subsection 8C insert—

“(8D) This subsection applies to any article in relation to which a person has committed, or is committing or is going to commit an offence under section 22 of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill.”

This new clause would give the police the power to stop and search persons who they believed were carrying lasers that have been, or are intended to be, used to commit an offence of shining or directing a light at a vehicle.

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

Labour is fully supportive of the aims of this clause and welcomes Government action to tackle laser attacks—a crime that could have absolutely catastrophic consequences, and that has unfortunately become increasingly prevalent in recent years as access to lasers has become easier. We have tabled a number of amendments, which would seek clarification about certain definitions, increase the scope of the offence, and grant enforcement officers powers to enable them to tackle effectively the perpetrators of laser attacks.

In amendment 25, we seek to delete subsection 1(b) and in its place insert a new subsection concerning the shining of laser beams at fixed installations involving traffic control. As has been seen in the written evidence provided by the British Airline Pilots’ Association, and as we heard last week in oral evidence from BALPA’s Captain Martin Drake, it is not only drivers of vehicles but those working to control vehicular traffic in fixed installations who are vulnerable to laser attacks. As BALPA’s written evidence puts it,

“a laser attack on an Air Traffic Control Tower could cause substantial disruption and could even result in a major airfield being closed for the duration of an attack. The financial and commercial implications of this type of event would be significant.”

I thought it was important to widen the provision, given the evidence that we heard, because such an installation is of course a ready-made target for any mischievous individual.

It should be noted that the amendment does not restrict the offence to laser attacks on air traffic control towers; fixed installations involving traffic control of modes of transport other than aviation could be subject to a laser attack. Clear examples are the port of London’s vessel traffic service control centres on the River Thames and in the estuary. These two centres—the Thames Barrier navigation centre in Woolwich and the port control at Gravesend—oversee maritime navigation in one of the largest and most diverse vessel traffic service areas in the UK, covering some 600 square miles of waterway, spanning 95 miles, from Teddington to the North sea. Accordingly, a laser attack on one of those fixed installations could have catastrophic consequences for safe navigation on the Thames.

The new paragraph that would replace subsection (1)(b) would ensure that the act of shining a laser at a vehicle in the course of a journey, or at a traffic control installation, was itself an offence, regardless of whether the driver or drivers of the vehicle, or the person or people controlling traffic in the fixed installation, were dazzled by the laser, whereas under the Bill it is a requirement that they be dazzled; Opposition Members think that is restrictive and could cause difficulties. We believe that an attempted laser attack in which a perpetrator shines a laser at a vehicle or traffic control installation but is not successful in dazzling a potential victim should be considered an offence in any event, and that the offence of committing a laser attack ought not to be restricted to those occurrences in which the perpetrator is successful in dazzling a victim.

On amendment 10, tabled by the hon. Member for Wycombe, Labour is satisfied with the current maximum term of imprisonment of five years following conviction for the offence of perpetrating an attack, so we do not agree with the amendment. We do not believe that doubling the maximum term of imprisonment is the correct approach, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I explain why. In our interpretation—unless we are guided otherwise—the perpetrator of any laser attack that can be proven to be attempted murder or manslaughter will receive a sentence appropriate to the crime. As we set out in new clause 15, which I will speak to shortly, the emphasis should be placed on enforcement and the policing of laser attacks, but I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Through amendment 26, we seek clarification of what constitutes an aircraft’s first movement. It will not have escaped your attention, Ms Ryan, that a person

“commits an offence if…he or she shines or directs a laser beam at a vehicle which is in the course of a journey”.

That is causing us—well, not concern, but we would like clarification. What constitutes the first movement for the purpose of take-off? We want to ensure that a laser attack on an aircraft that is taxiing to take off, or indeed to its position for passenger disembarkation, is covered by the legislation. This is our anxiety. The Bill as it stands could be construed as stating that a laser attack on an aircraft would be an offence only if the laser aimed at an aircraft in the air, or on a runway in the process of taking off, but not if it was taxiing towards a runway or on its post-landing journey to its parked position.

We believe that aircrafts taxiing—that is, in the stage between being in a position of rest and take-off—should be explicitly included in the definition of aircraft that are in flight, as should those on the post-landing journey to the parking position. The amendment was tabled to include that in the definition, and to avoid any confusion or ambiguity, which could be exploited by a defendant; we can imagine a scenario in which they, interpreting the Bill to the letter, say, “I don’t fall within that description.” The amendment would cover a scenario in which someone outwith the airport perimeter, for mischief and mayhem, seeks to cause disruption in this way, because they consider a taxiing aircraft to be the easiest of targets, as it travels at a much slower speed than one in the air.

Amendment 27 is a tidying-up exercise; if amendment 25 is accepted, lines 19 to 23 become superfluous. Finally, new clause 15 would give the police the power to stop and search persons who they believed were carrying lasers that had been, or were intended to be, used to commit an offence of shining or directing a light at a vehicle or fixed installation involved in traffic control. BALPA’s written evidence stated:

“We strongly believe that this new offence” of laser attacks

“must be accompanied with appropriate stop and search powers for the police. Without it we doubt the deterrent effect will be enough to deter attacks.”

BALPA went on:

“This is the one area that we believe must be addressed to enable law enforcement officers to bring the perpetrators of laser illumination offences before the courts. We would strongly urge the committee to amend the Bill to cover this point.”

Without the insertion of this new clause, a police officer who responds to a report of a laser attack but does not catch an offender in the act of shining a laser will not be in a position to carry out stop and search and, accordingly, will not be able to arrest the offender. We therefore think it is critical that this new clause makes its way into the Bill, so that the police are given these stop and search powers and, crucially, the offence of shining a laser at a vehicle or fixed installation involved in traffic control can be properly enforced.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

In tabling amendment 10, my intention was to probe the Government’s position on the seriousness of this offence, and to ensure that the Committee had an opportunity to discuss the same. Very simply, the amendment doubles the sentence from five to 10 years. In oral evidence, I picked up the issue of the seriousness of the offence, and in replying to me, Richard Goodwin talked about the difficulty of proving a person’s intent:

“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.”

I picked that theme up and asked BALPA whether it is possible that an attack with a laser could cause the loss of an aeroplane. Martin Drake replied, “Oh yes, absolutely.” He went on to explain that laser attacks happen during finals for aeroplanes, when pilots are carrying out essential and, in some cases, obvious checks, such as checking whether the wheels are down. He said:

“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.”

I asked him to remind us of the maximum capacity of the largest aeroplanes, and he said:

“You could end up with about 520 on an A380.”––[Official Report, Vehicle Technology and Aviation Public Bill Committee, 14 March 2017; c. 74, Q171-173.]

I mention that evidence to the Committee because we need to recognise that this offence could potentially have the most serious of consequences. God forbid that anything like this should ever happen, but we have heard expert evidence that an aircraft could be lost in extremis as a result of a laser attack. I hear what the Labour Front-Bencher says; I tabled this amendment to probe the seriousness of the offence, and am well aware that in the dread occasion of an aircraft being lost, a range of other offences would be available. However, I put the amendment to the Government, and although I do not intend to press it to a Division, I hope that the Minister will say something that others can later rely on about the extreme gravity of the offence.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester 3:00 pm, 21st March 2017

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, not least because my attitude has always been to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that anybody would wish to shine a laser at a plane, save for mischief, devilment and malfeasance. A thief might claim financial improvement and recompense from stealing cash, but lasers are simply about damaging equipment and putting people in harm’s way. I have a lot of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, but my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough made a good case about other offences on the statute books, so I will go with that.

I also want to speak in support of amendment 26. Clause 22(6) mentions when the aircraft

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

That sounds as though it means the beginning of take-off, rather than at the start of the runway. As my hon. Friend has said, that precludes taxiing and the aircraft being moved around an airfield or airport, when it might be being taken to a maintenance-hanger, for example, but is still moving along and in a dangerous position. I hope that the Government will take those suggestions on board.

I want to look at clause 22(1) and float a scenario for the Minister to consider. It is not a likely scenario, but as we know there are Mr Loopholes out there who might wish to exploit the law. If I am speeding along and a police officer directs a speed camera at me, there is a fair chance that the camera might be laser operated. The laser itself might not be in the visible spectrum, but the camera may be laser operated. Seeing a police officer shining a laser gun at me to check my speed—I would, of course, be within the speed limit, as always—might distract me and cause me to drive inappropriately or perhaps to crash the car. I hope that the Minister will consider the wording of subsections (1) and (2) and ensure that the measure does not provide scope for malfeasance in directing it at police officers doing their duty using laser equipment to assess the speed of a vehicle. The duty of such officers might be undermined by the wording of the clause.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I take my hon. Friend’s point: it is a bit far-fetched, but far-fetched things do happen. When I annotated the Bill for myself, in clause 22(1)(a) after “he or she” I put “without good reason”. I think that would cover the kind of scenario my hon. Friend is talking about.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

My hon. Friend is a parliamentary Mr Loophole, not in the sense that he exploits loopholes, but in that he spots them for the rest of us. It may sound like a far-fetched scenario, but the purpose of the Committee is to go through the Bill in detail and to establish scenarios that might happen. Perhaps the Minister will take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion. I am worried because I do not want our police, whose important job might involve using laser equipment, to be undermined.

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

I think we are all agreed. I support clause 22, notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s comments about a possible loophole regarding the police.

I will quickly talk to amendments 25, 26 and 27, which are very sensible. Amendment 25 confirms that the offence is the intent or actual action of pointing a laser at a vehicle. That is important because we do not want the argument to get hung up on proving whether someone has dazzled somebody or caused a distraction. The offence should be the attempt to point a laser at somebody, and that should be made much clearer in the Bill. For that reason, I support the amendment.

Clause 22(2) states that a person has a defence if they show that they pointed a laser completely accidently and without intent. The clause also includes a defence for somebody acting in a reasonable manner.

The amendments confirm the offence of pointing a laser at traffic control and, as we have heard, planes. Planes get moved about, not just on take-off, but when they are taxiing around the runway. That is also sensible and I would like to hear the Minister’s response.

In Scotland, there have been 150 incidents in 18 months, with 24 at Glasgow airport in February alone. That shows how serious and prevalent the issue is, which is why I welcome the Government’s action in clause 22, but I think it would be strengthened by the amendments.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Conservative, South West Bedfordshire

I live about 15 minutes’ drive from London Luton airport. Indeed, the planes come in to land one side of my house and take off on the other, so I can picture the scenario on a regular basis.

I absolutely support clause 22 and I understand what members on both sides of the Committee are trying to do with the amendments. Indeed, I have some sympathy for the creation of a new offence. However, I worry about the practicality of hard-stretched police forces being able to deploy officers at night around airports in order to apprehend people who are up to no good with lasers. Has the Minister had any discussions with other Government colleagues about whether it is practical or possible to restrict the supply of these powerful lasers for illegitimate uses?

Such lasers are put to proper use in eye surgery, as we heard during oral evidence. On restriction, however, there is precedent. The Government restrict the supply of dangerous knives. We limit our freedom as citizens to buy what we want in order to provide for the safety of our fellow citizens. A knife attack is terrible. In a knife attack, one person could be killed or grievously injured. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has said, if someone takes down a whole airliner, possibly hundreds of our fellow citizens would lose their lives. This issue has crept up on us and I therefore understand that the Government’s thinking on it is developing, but it is much better that we proceed on a precautionary principle rather than some terrible tragedy happens.

The discussion of these amendments has been quite broad, so I do not intend to take a separate clause stand part debate. If any Members wish to speak on stand part, they should say so now.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I want to make a minor point to the Minister about the wording. Line 41 in clause 22(2) states:

“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section”.

Why do we need the words “charged with an offence”? Surely one often gives the defence before one is charged. It might happen afterwards, but it could also happen before they are charged, so it is kind of circular. We do not need that wording. It does not add anything but it subtracts, so I suggest to the Minister—I know he likes his wording to be exact—that the words “charged with an offence” be removed.

I repeat what I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. I think that clause 22(1)(a) should read, “he or she without good reason”, to give flexibility. Scenarios that we cannot yet envisage could develop. Besides the scenario mentioned by my hon. Friend, there might be another good reason, such as traffic control technology, so we should have that flexibility.

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

This has been an interesting, short debate on an important subject. The Government are responding to a threat by legislating. It is not yet clear how extensive the threat is, but it is certainly serious and probably growing. A small number of people have been convicted thus far under existing legislation.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the existing powers, which deal in part with the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe about aircraft. It is already illegal to cause risk or endanger safety or life in respect of aircraft. The existing legislation allows the forces of law to apprehend anyone who does that by whatever means, including through the use of the technology under discussion. However, the Government clearly feel that we need to go further, which is why we are introducing the new provisions.

Before I move to the substance, the semantics matter and I will consider the points made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West. Those would be small, technical drafting changes, and I will make further inquiries about whether they are necessary. My inclination is that his second suggestion is probably not necessary, but I will look at both of them. He is always diligent and assiduous in concentrating on such matters, and that deserves a reasoned and reasonable response.

On the business of taxiing, I want to be clear that the wording of the proposed legislation mirrors that in the Air Navigation Order 2016, which includes taxiing. The reference to

“a vehicle being in the course of a journey” includes taxiing aircraft because that is part of the course of its journey. We are advised that the application of the provisions would not be in doubt.

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

I hear what the Minister says, but will he turn his attention to clause 22(6)? It states:

“For the purposes of subsection (5)(a) an aircraft is in flight for the period…ending with the moment when it next comes to rest after landing.”

As we heard in evidence—right hon. and hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong—there are various moments in the aircraft’s journey when it has landed that it can come to rest. Many of us will have experienced sitting on an aircraft when it has first landed, waiting for a gate to be made available. We need to be precise about that. I want to ensure that when it comes to rest after landing, the aircraft gets safely to its berth at the point of disembarkation, and that it does not just sit on a landing strip or, having taxied so far, still have a journey to make. If that is the existing definition, I respectfully suggest that it requires some thought and attention, because it is not clear to me. We are here to try to make things crystal clear.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:15 pm, 21st March 2017

That is an interesting intervention. I will discuss the matter with draftsmen, of course, but I incline towards the view that “finally comes to rest” might be clearer. That would deal with the exactly circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Conservative, North West Hampshire

Presumably the Minister could make clear that the Government intend the word “rest” to imply that the engines are turned off and that the entirety of the journey is, therefore, complete.

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

That is also a good point. I want to reflect on those semantics. It does not seem unreasonable to be absolutely clear about that. I need to speak to parliamentary draftsmen and others about it, because we need to get it right. I can see why hon. Members are raising the issue. It is not a matter of substance or policy, but of the application of the detail of something that we all agree needs to be done.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

I do not wish to detain the Committee much longer. In support of the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, my concern is that primary legislation trumps secondary legislation so, irrespective of what might be said in the Air Navigation Order, even if the language of the Bill is a bit woollier, that will take precedence. I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment to speak to his draftsmen.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I am grateful because my point marries with his. May I suggest that at the end of subsection 5(a), the final word “flight” is replaced with “movement”? Then we would not need the other stuff. The subsection would cover not only passengers disembarking after waiting on the apron and being moved on but the aircraft being moved into a hangar.

If someone shone a laser at a pilot driving an aircraft on the tarmac, that very big vehicle could do a lot of damage to other people, even if all the passengers had disembarked and there was only one pilot on board. It is not simply a matter of the passengers getting off; aircraft taxi into hangars and so on. If the Minister changed “flight” to “movement” and junked the rest, I think he would be all right.

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

Yes. I do not want to examine this matter exhaustively. Those are all well-made points. Our desire is to ensure that, whatever we do, the provision works in concert with existing law, is fit for purpose, does what it is supposed to and takes account of a range of eventualities in which mischievous or, more worryingly, seriously malevolent activity may take place. I will think about the exact semantics and speak to parliamentary draftsmen. I hope hon. Members will bear with me while I do so.

This is a new area of work, though it builds on good existing practice. I have mentioned the legislation, the navigation orders and so on, and the Aviation Security Act 1982, to which I referred when I spoke about the existing offence of any person unlawfully or intentionally endangering the safety of an aircraft in flight. By the way, I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that the penalty under that Act is life imprisonment. It is, of course, a very serious offence, for the very reasons that several hon. Members have offered. Its consequences could be dire. All crime is serious and violent crime more so, but this could be a crime of catastrophic proportions. It is important, therefore, that we give it serious attention and concentrated and diligent scrutiny, which this Committee has.

Let me now speak about the amendments. I can tell by the way they are written and have been spoken to that they are designed to improve the legislation. I do not think there is any doubt about that. We all understand that this matter requires the Government’s and Parliament’s attention.

Amendment 25 creates two freestanding offences. First, it would make the act of shining or pointing a laser at a vehicle an offence in itself. Secondly, its subsection 1(b) would bring into the scope of the clause a new offence of shining a laser at fixed installations, such as traffic control towers. The effect of amendment 25 would be that prosecutors did not need to prove that the person in control of the vehicle had been dazzled or distracted; it would make the act of pointing or shining a laser at a vehicle an offence in itself.

I offer this not to be excessively critical but to be analytical about the amendment. The amendment might inadvertently capture the directing of lasers at driverless vehicles, such as with automated light meter systems. In such a circumstance, it would be difficult to prove harm because the person would not physically be at the controls of the vehicle. A further effect would be that the amendment captured those who did not seek to cause harm. I qualify that by echoing what the hon. Member for City of Chester said—I have rarely known him contribute to a Committee of this House without doing so sensibly. It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which someone would shine a laser at a vehicle without at least mischievous intent. That is why I chose the word that he used. Whether they would be intending to do harm is, from a legal perspective, a slightly different matter but, as he suggested, it is certainly fair to say that they would not be there to do good.

I can understand why the amendment has been tabled, but I want to emphasise that, in introducing this provision, we are mindful of the need for clarity in terms of enforcement. To some degree, we are breaking new ground—albeit on a base of good legislative foundations—and I want to be confident that we could enforce the measure. There can be no room for anything that is not tightly drawn or carefully directed.

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

The Minister describes a circumstance in which the amendment would inadvertently draw people into this offence. Is the answer to his query not in subsection (2), which states that is a defence for a person charged under this section to show that they did not intend to commit the offence?

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

If we imagine that someone is using a laser to attract attention in a way that is not designed to be malevolent, it is not inconceivable that, if we drew up the legislation in a broad way, they might be captured by its scope. There has to be proof of malevolence at the heart of what we do. That is why the proposals are—

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

I want to make progress, but I will give way briefly. The Minister is overlooking the concept of recklessness. It is not simply malevolence; it can be recklessness—reckless endangerment. One has to take that into account.

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

That is true, but the example I gave of someone trying to attract attention in distress would be neither malevolent nor reckless. One thinks of laser flares, for example, which could be used for both reckless and malevolent purposes but are not designed for that, any more than a handheld laser is. We are not in the business of creating legislation that could be misapplied, or the enforcement of which was compromised by the breadth of definition.

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

I am happy to give way, but then I do want to move to the substance of my remarks. These were my exciting and relatively pithy introductory remarks.

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

I thank the Minister for giving way. He says that he wants the regulations to be enforceable and practical, but in clause 22(1)(b) we read the phrase:

“the laser beam dazzles or distracts a person with control of the vehicle”.

I would suggest that that is going to be hard to enforce. It is a question of proving that the owner or the person in charge of the vehicle was dazzled or distracted. To me, taking that out makes the regulations more practicable and more likely to be enforceable.

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

As we were enjoying this interesting debate, I wrote that to learn to speak takes a couple of years for most of us, and to learn to listen takes a lifetime for almost all of us. I am inclined to share this with the Committee. Listening to other people’s perspective on this will help me to frame my own. That is how Committees should be. I have always taken the view that in this House, the purpose of democratic exchange is to help shape the thinking of Ministers and governments. Governments who fail to know that fail to learn it over lifetimes, and one might say that their lifetimes are the worse for it so I am, of course, mindful of the sense of what has been said.

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

I will, but I do want to move on to the substance, otherwise my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will think I am not being pithy, and then I will get into all kinds of trouble.

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

I will be as pithy as I can possibly be. I am trying to help the Minister here. With the reintroduction of the concept of dazzling, we are back in the conundrum that existed in previous legislation, with the concept of endangerment. That was the difficulty; commentators were saying that the offence is committed by simply doing it. To have to establish endangerment is a bar too high, and it removes the very scenario that I am trying to describe. Hence my suggestion of the removal of the concept of dazzling.

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

Yes, but there are two things to say about that. I will move to the substance. By the way, the dividing line here can be shortened as a result of the length of my own introductory remarks. The dividing line is where there is a real potential for harm. We do not want to capture instances in which harm is not likely to arise, whether as a result of malevolence or recklessness. We have not heard evidence that police find it difficult to show that someone has been dazzled or distracted. Indeed, the opposite is true. The police are clear that they can identify when someone has been dazzled or distracted, almost ipso facto.

I will now move to the amendments. If there is time at the end then I shall be more than happy to take further interventions, but my generosity has been proven by the number that I have taken so far. I do not need to re-prove it. This group of amendments relates to the offence covering the misuse of lasers, as we have said. I will now speak directly to amendment 25 because it speaks to the principal focus of the clause, which is to protect transport operators and the public. The Government’s priority is, I have made clear, to ensure that we maintain high levels of transport safety across all modes of transport in the UK, and that is what we propose to do. Clause 22 addresses an important gap in legislation, and seeks to improve the ability of police and prosecuting authorities to investigate and prosecute the misuse of lasers. That much is clear.

Article 225 of the Air Navigation Order 2016 makes it an offence to

“shine any light…so as to dazzle or distract the pilot”.

The police are concerned that this provision does not provide the necessary power to tackle and adequately investigate an offence. I will explain further. As a summary offence that is triable in a magistrates court, it provides the police with powers of arrest only. It does not provide the powers to search a person or property after arrest, nor enter a property for the purposes of an arrest. Together with the fact that there is no specific offence covering the use of lasers against other modes of transport, those are the gaps that we are seeking to address here. This both extends the police’s powers in a measured but what seems to me apposite way, and covers other modes of transport. We have heard about some of those. They can be almost as wide as there are modes of transport.

The offence that we are creating gives police the powers needed to investigate an offence, enabling them to use powers to enter a property for the purposes of arrest and to search a person or property after arrest. The Government believe that, while amendment 25 seeks to address the problem, it goes further than is appropriate. The offence we are creating would specifically address the risk of harm—that is the point I made a few moments ago—as a result of shining a laser that dazzles or distracts the person physically operating a vehicle. The British Airline Pilots’ Association, which we heard from in evidence, said that in the case of aviation, the illumination of a cockpit from the act of pointing or shining a device, and by dazzling or distracting a pilot, creates the risk of an accident.

A further problem in introducing a new layer to the legislation is that it could penalise those who have legitimate use for lasers. I gave examples earlier, so I will not repeat them, but it would be legitimate to use a flare or light to attract attention and so on. The proposal would also capture the shining of lasers at remotely controlled vehicles—I mentioned that earlier too—where there is no real risk of harm. There may be devilment or mischief, but no risk of harm, and it might not be reckless by a legal definition. It is worth noting that control towers are usually found in controlled areas, so there is less scope to shine a laser at them.

However, I think I can probably provide some reassurance to Members in that I am prepared to continue to look at that. If there is sufficient evidence that those static potential targets for the malevolent use of lasers are a problem, and if that is reported to us as a problem, we will revisit the issue. The case that has been made today is, if not yet persuasive, certainly one that requires further consideration.

Before turning to the detail of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on amendment 10, I should emphasise the purpose of the clause that the amendment seeks to alter. For the first time, we are agreeing consistency across all modes of transport in respect of the improper use of lasers. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that the proposed penalties under the Bill are appropriate to deal with the misuse of lasers. As the vast majority of instances are tried in respect of aircraft, we have decided to reflect the penalties that apply to the offence under the order I mentioned—the air navigation order.

Specific provisions prohibiting the use of lasers against aircraft exist under that order. These provisions make it an offence to shine a light so as to dazzle or distract the pilot. A person found guilty of this offence is liable on summary conviction to a maximum fine of £2,500, which we recognise is insufficient and does not reflect the seriousness of the offence. Where a case can be made that the action of the misuse of a laser is endangering an aircraft, police tend to use the more serious offence under article 240 which, as I described, carries stiffer penalties. The penalty for this offence on conviction or indictment is five years in prison, a fine or both.

However, the problem with relying on the endangerment offence is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe made clear, it was not designed specifically to deal with lasers—it predates the malevolent use of lasers. While the provision provides stiffer penalties, the police and Crown Prosecution Service find that it is difficult to investigate and prove that the endangerment offence has been committed as a result of the misuse of lasers. For example, in the case of aviation, it is difficult to prove that an aircraft is in danger as there is generally a co-pilot available to assume control of the aircraft if one pilot is incapacitated or temporarily blinded or dazzled. Another problem is that the provision of the air navigation order does not extend beyond aviation. As I said earlier, there is a need to think more broadly about other transport modes.

The new offence we are creating will address these gaps and bring together under one umbrella a single provision covering misuse of lasers against any mode of transport with penalties akin to those set out for endangering aircraft, so as to reflect the more serious offences.

Turning to the specific amendment tabled by my hon. Friend, I can assure him and others that the penalties we are introducing are proportionate. Clearly, where an offence results in catastrophic consequences such as an accident, the loss of life and so on, the Crown Prosecution Service could seek to bring forward more serious charges such as destroying, damaging or endangering the safety of aircraft under section 2 of the Aviation Security Act 1982, grievous bodily harm, manslaughter or even murder. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West referred to this in his opening remarks.

The primary focus of creating a laser-specific offence, which reflects the penalties for endangerment, is that we are bringing consistency to how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service deal with laser offences. An offence against a bus, train or vessel will be commensurate with endangering an aircraft. We are sending a strong signal to would-be offenders that transport safety is critical. The Government clearly take this seriously in defence of the public interest and we will be and have continued to be unremitting in our determination to ensure that people do not do this and that if they do they suffer the consequences. Against this backdrop, the proposed maximum penalties for the new offence would be appropriate and for that reason, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe will not press his amendment.

With respect to amendment 26—and I will try and be brief—subsection 6 of the new offence mirrors wording used in the air navigation order in such a way as to include the taxiing of aircraft. I caveat that by saying on the matter of the semantics that, as I have said, I will speak to parliamentary draftsmen, but I understand the point made by several hon. Members.

The aim is to capture the circumstance where an aircraft is taxiing before and after it takes off. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, we know from travelling on aeroplanes that they can be on the tarmac for a considerable time and could be vulnerable to a person who wanted to do harm during that period. It is important the legislation reflects that risk and we will make sure it does. Adding the wording proposed in the amendment would make what we do here different, casting doubt on the wording used in the air navigation order, so I think we can probably do better.

I have explained that we are creating a new offence to fill the gap in legislation, so I move on to new clause 15. Its content has been discussed extensively and, as with all new offences, we must be confident the police have the powers to investigate the offence effectively. This is the point I made about making sure whatever we put in place can be enforced and used to the best effect. The police already have the power to stop and search for laser pointers where they have reasonable grounds to suspect the pointer was intended to be used to cause injury. This is because, in these circumstances, the pointer will meet the definition of an offensive weapon. This covers the more serious instances of laser pointer misuse. However, the police do not currently have the power to stop and search in instances where they have no reason to believe the user intends to cause injury.

It is worth noting that my Department, the Home Office and the Metropolitan police are working together to consider whether further police powers may be required. I was asked in the course of the debate whether I was having discussions with other Government Departments. The answer is yes. We are, as I say, in discussion with the Home Office.

I am going on what I hope will be a delightful journey tomorrow with my good friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I will have a discussion with him then about the sale of lasers. It is a difficult and challenging matter for obvious reasons. These lasers are sold for all kinds of good reasons and purposes, but I think it is worth our having that conversation and I will have it tomorrow. I may even be able to report back to the Committee when we meet again. I might be asked questions on Thursday. Who knows? Certainly, it is a conversation that we need to have across Government, as was suggested by various people who have contributed to this short debate.

An extension of stop-and-search powers is one of several options. We would need to go about that in a way that was fully considered, leaving no doubt that the new stop-and-search powers are necessary, proportionate and likely to be effective in practice. Any changes to the powers would of course be subject to consultation.

I suppose that the best way to summarise the matter is to say that the area is new for Government, because it concerns a new kind of device being used in different and unhappy ways. It requires us to fill what I have described as a legislative gap in a way that allows proper enforcement across a range of transport modes, with the right powers in the hands of the police. It needs to reflect existing legislation inasmuch as it marries with it so that the police, CPS and others can choose what to apply in what circumstance. However, I am happy to look at the semantics to make sure they are pinpoint right, without compromising that legislative marriage.

I do not mean to be patronising when I say I understand the Opposition’s dutiful and diligent way of approaching the matter. I hope that that will be reflected in the Government’s determination to get the matter right. With that summary—some would say it was lengthy, but others would say it was not long enough—I hope that hon. Members will decide not to press their amendments.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 3:45 pm, 21st March 2017

I am grateful to the Minister. We have made some progress and we might simply have a different approach in amendment 25, because, as I said at the outset, we are not talking simply about shining a laser and dazzling pilots and other people. This is principally a strict liability offence. Paragraph 76 of the explanatory notes says that it will be a strict liability offence, and that is repeated in paragraph 77. I am in difficulties in that regard in seeking leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment 27 ties in with amendment 25; one follows inevitably on the other.

On amendment 26 and definitions of taxiing, I am greatly reassured by what the Minister had to say. He has given an undertaking to look at the exact wording and very sensible observations have been made by a number of Members on both sides of the Committee. I recognise that there must be consistency between what we say here and what is in the air navigation order.

As for new clause 15, the Minister has explained that powers are currently available to police in pursuit of those in possession of offensive weapons, but I think he entirely understands the point and the representations that were made in evidence and has given an assurance that the consideration of the matter will include Home Office colleagues and the police. I shall not press new clause 15 or amendment 26 to a vote, for the reasons I have outlined, but in the circumstances I do want to proceed to a vote on amendment 25.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 8, Noes 9.

Division number 1 Seasonal Working — Offence of shining or directing a laser at a vehicle

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment 27 accordingly falls.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

On a point of order, Ms Ryan. I am sorry to trouble the Committee but I do not think I sought leave to withdraw amendment 10, which I would of course like to do.

There is no need, Mr Baker, because there is only one question before the Committee at a time.

Clause 23