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Violence on Aircraft

6.43 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what further measures they propose to deal

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with crimes of violence on board aircraft; and how they intend to ensure that those found guilty of such crimes receive appropriate punishments.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I must declare a partial interest as a director of a small airline operating mainly inter-island flights in the Channel Islands. I am glad to say it is only a partial interest, as, so far as I am aware, the airline has never had an incident of the type we shall discuss in this evening's debate.

If one walks down the street and sees a fight outside a pub, one can cross to the other side of the street or turn back and avoid it. Furthermore, the chances are that the police will arrive within minutes. In a thin metal tube at 35,000 feet there is no escaping, and that is one reason why violent and disruptive behaviour aboard an aircraft is so alarming and threatening to innocent passengers and flight crew alike.

There have been a number of disturbing incidents reported in the press in recent months, and I shall refer to some of them, but I do not want this debate to cause undue alarm among the travelling public. The vast majority of flights are trouble-free, but because there seems to be no centralised reporting system of incidents it is not possible to say whether there has been an increase or not, bearing in mind the continual overall increase in air travel.

My first question therefore is whether it would be possible for either the DETR or the CAA to formalise one system of reporting which could then lead to scientific research into the causes and seek remedies for the problem. Secondly--I refer to the second part of my Question--there are inconsistencies in the way offences are dealt with. In one case involving disruptive behaviour on a British charter aircraft and where a diversionary landing was made in Spain the offender was dealt with there in what can only be described as a token manner, receiving, I believe, only an overnight stay in jail. In what seems to be a similar incident, where a diversionary landing was made to eject the troublemaker in Portugal, where he was arrested, he was then tried in Coventry Crown Court and received 18 months--in my view a quite appropriate sentence. But why the difference?

The industry needs the Government to support the right of airlines to report incidents to the police in the UK and to encourage other states to take powers to ensure that offenders receive proper punishments when UK airlines report incidents overseas. On that point, noble Lords may recall that I introduced the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Bill in this House in 1996. This, unusually for a Private Member's Bill, became law and allowed for the first time offences committed on board United Kingdom-bound foreign registered aircraft to be tried here. I understand that it has been a success and a number of offenders have been dealt with who would previously have got away scot-free. I believe that the Government are trying to persuade other countries to take similar powers, and this is to be welcomed. I should like an assurance from the Minister that foreign offenders arrested here are dealt with in the same way as a UK citizen would be, and--convenient though it might be--are not just sent packing after a token night in the cells.

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In a very serious incident recently involving an Airtours flight in Spain a stewardess was seriously injured by being hit on the head with a bottle. The offender, who was British, was bailed. He jumped bail the first time in early December and was only persuaded to return to Spain by the Daily Mirror and was again bailed to appear on 18th December. I understand that he did not appear on that occasion either, and his present whereabouts are unknown. Meanwhile the stewardess is still recovering from her injuries, but it looks as if the offender is quite likely never to be punished for this horrendous attack. While I am no expert on Spanish law, it appears to me that it is simply not taking this case seriously. In this country I would like to believe, in particular as the offender already had a criminal record, that he would have been brought straight up before the magistrates and either sent down by them or remanded in custody to appear before the Crown court.

I know that the Government take this matter seriously, as does the airline industry, and that a number of initiatives are under way. A disruptive passenger action group has been set up at Gatwick. An ACPO working group has been formed to consider police powers at airports and the adequacy of legislation and sentencing in relation to offences committed at airports. The Government have held meetings with interested parties and have announced a number of initiatives. This is all to be welcomed and no doubt the Minister will expand on that in his reply. Further, I very much welcome the proposal that the air navigation order be amended to make it an offence to interfere with crew members carrying out their duties. One problem seems to be that offences under the ANO are not arrestable by the police excect in certain circumstances, and I believe that this new offence and the existing offences of endangerment, drunk on board, etc. should be made arrestable offences. Will the Government do that? If it requires primary legislation the Minister can be assured of support from this side of the House.

I said earlier that research needed to be done into the causes of these incidents. How many, for example, are drink related? Airlines should refuse boarding to passengers who are drunk and should not serve those who are drinking excessively. I know that they try to do that, but it is sometimes easier said than done. There is also the problem of people drinking their own supplies of drink rather than those offered by the airlines. Unfortunately there seems to be a breed of holidaymaker these days which regards being permanently plastered as essential to having a good time.

Other incidents can be smoking related, and I suppose here again I have a vested interest. Smoking may not be that serious, but tampering with the smoke detector in the lavatory certainly is. I wonder, I know controversially, if the airlines were to reconsider their ban on smoking in all sections of the plane, that might help.

An airline can, of course, refuse to carry a passenger again who has behaved badly, but it is much more difficult for the industry generally to set up a blacklist, for reasons of data protection and so forth. It is also probably not possible for the Government to endorse such a blacklist.

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Nevertheless, will the Government at least ensure that that subject is included on the agenda of an ICAO meeting so that it can be discussed internationally?

Lastly, it is essential that the airlines give the best possible training to their staff to deal with these incidents. It is also vital that the airlines give all necessary support to their staff who have been involved in incidents. It can be an alarming experience to have to appear as a witness in court opposite someone who has behaved in a violent manner towards one. The best counselling, the best lawyers and the best support are the least the aircrew can expect from their employers.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government and the industry are working together to tackle this unpleasant problem, and I look forward both to the debate which is to follow and to the Minister's reply.

6.52 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, is to be congratulated on the opportunity he has given the House of debating a problem which, as he said, is causing increasing concern to the airlines, the CAA and the police; that of violent and disruptive passengers on aircraft entering or leaving the United Kingdom, whether or not it reaches the threshold of criminality presupposed in the Question.

There is common agreement that such incidents have increased enormously over the past few years, though statistical information about the extent of the problem and its causes is lacking. The CAA has a system of mandatory occurrence reporting covering all incidents which have a potential effect on flight safety, most of them involving disruptive passengers. The criteria for reporting are laid down in CAP 382, The Mandatory Occurrence Reporting Scheme--Information and Guidance, but the decision on whether to report a particular incident rests with the operator. The CAA tell me that due to the subjective nature of the assessment by reporters of the seriousness of incidents against the criteria, reporting thresholds are not consistent but vary considerably between one airline and another. Subject to that proviso, 104 incidents of disruptive behaviour by passengers were reported under the MOR scheme in 1997.

Another way of looking at the problem is to ask how many prosecutions of disruptive passengers there were at the main UK airports. According to the police at Heathrow, who gave me this information yesterday, of the 63 cases brought in 1997, 25 were of drunkenness, eight of endangerment of flight safety, two of failing to obey a command, seven of smoking in a prohibited place and 21 of affray. However, the cases that are brought to court form only a small fraction of the number of incidents of disruptive behaviour dealt with in Articles 55 to 59 of the Air Navigation Order. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, stated, those are not arrestable offences because they carry maximum penalties lower than the five years' imprisonment mentioned in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

In answer to a Question on 19th November, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, told me that the Government had no plans to increase the penalty for endangerment or to

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make the other ANO offences arrestable. Only in the case of affray would the police have had the power to detain the passengers who committed the offences that came to court from Heathrow. In all the other cases, either the CAA or the CPS would have to decide later whether to prosecute. The CAA say that it is desperately difficult to investigate such incidents when the witnesses are dispersed and crew rostas make it hard to arrange interviews. They quote a recent case where the decision was taken not to proceed because the incident took place on an outbound flight from Manchester to Tenerife when the crew were based in Dublin, most of the passenger witnesses lived in Lancashire or Scotland and the accused lived in Bristol, which was where the law said the case had to be tried.

The CAA also say that offenders escape justice by giving false addresses because they have no access to personal databases from which the individuals can be traced. Therefore, if one looks at the cases which come to court, one is missing a large number which are dropped because of such practical difficulties or because the facts do not appear to the CPS or the CAA to satisfy the public interest test for prosecution.

At Gatwick in 1997, police were called to aircraft on about 120 occasions and prosecutions ensued in about one-third of those cases. It would be interesting to know why no charges were brought in the rest of the incidents. The Gatwick police tell me that they are rarely called to the departure gates, though ground staff have instructions, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, pointed out, not to allow drunken or disruptive passengers on board and the police are the only people qualified to make a professional judgment on whether an individual is drunk. One can understand the reluctance of staff to antagonise a person who may already be exhibiting aggressive behaviour. Perhaps authorities at airports could give some thought to the idea of having video cameras at departure gates linked to the police so that they could observe suspected offenders.

It now seems to be agreed by the police, the airlines and the Minister, Dr. John Reid, that we should seek ways of recording more accurate information about the extent and causes of disruptive behaviour by passengers. I understand that at a meeting held between the Minister, the airlines, the police and the CAA on 25th November it was decided to set up a small working group, chaired by the DETR, to examine incident reporting and the commissioning of research into the causes of disruptive behaviour.

Clearly, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said, it would be a first step for the airlines to agree to report all incidents in a standard format while ensuring conformity with the Data Protection Act. British Airways, for example, have voyage reports dealing with any events which, in the opinion of the captain, should be drawn to the attention of the management, including low level disorderly behaviour by passengers. As a next stage they have air safety reports which may be specifically about disorderly behaviour. Under the latter heading there were 350 incidents in 1997, which I believe was a 400 per cent. increase over the previous year. Britannia, which has a similar system of reporting, had 331 incidents in 1997 and Airtours had 70. Therefore,

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it can be seen that the number of such reports is much larger than either the number of reports under the MOR scheme or the number of prosecutions.

It may not be too difficult to look at those air safety reports and ensure that all airlines followed an agreed set of rules so that the reports could be aggregated and compared between airlines to see whether any of them had developed techniques for prevention which appear to be more successful than others.

Airlines had already decided, at a meeting of the UK Flight Safety Committee on 3rd November, that they would pool the information they collect and decide exactly what should be recorded. Presumably the task of working out the detail is now entrusted to the DETR chaired working group. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us the deadline for reporting and whether their findings will be made public.

Another point of agreement seems to be that prevention is better than cure. That is exemplified by the UK Flight Safety Committee's Conduct 99, an initiative designed partly to minimise the number of incidents. The airlines have agreed to review the training of their staff in conflict management; to review their policy on serving excess alcohol and dealing with drunk passengers, and to adhere strictly to the rule that drunk passengers should not be allowed to board aircraft.

It was decided that clear notices should be displayed in any area serving alcohol within an airport that it is an offence to board an aircraft while drunk, and that such passengers will not be allowed to board. It was also decided that training should be given to those who sell alcohol in airports in relation to dealing with drunk passengers. Those two recommendations are addressed to the British Airports Authority, though it was not clear whether or not it attended the meeting. Could we be told whether BAA accept the idea of notices, not just where alcohol is sold, but also at the departure gate? Will it be asked to add an obligation concerning training into tenancy agreements with retailers selling alcohol? Also, what does BAA think can be done if a salesperson notices that someone is the worse for wear?

The UKFSC list also includes recommendations addressed to those promoting travel. It proposes that literature should be responsible, particularly when it concerns holidays for younger age groups. Details of unacceptable behaviour should be given in literature, it says, and the CAA has already distributed 10 million pamphlets on unacceptable behaviour, with airline tickets. The pamphlet tells passengers that if they are guilty of drunken or disorderly conduct, they can face a £5,000 fine or two years in prison, or both.

All those latter recommendations concern the abuse of alcohol, either directly or indirectly, and subjectively one would say that a great many of the more serious incidents are fuelled by alcohol. Barbara Ellen, the Observer columnist, reported an incident she witnessed on a flight home from New York last week in which a drunken passenger punched his girlfriend in the face and headbutted one of the pilots, then tried to get out of the plane through one of the emergency doors at 30,000 feet. Amelia Gentleman wrote in the Guardian

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of 5th September about a passenger who drank a quarter of a bottle of whisky before getting on the plane then when she was refused further alcohol on board kicked, headbutted and bit members of the crew. In another Guardian report, by Sara Hall, a drunken passenger smashed a vodka bottle over the head of a stewardess, and raked the jagged edge over her back causing injuries that needed 18 stitches. I believe that was the incident referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, in his speech. The Daily Mail of 17th November reported a drunken father and son on an Air 2000 flight to Malta causing such a brawl that the captain had to lock himself in his cabin and divert to Milan. In the Mail on Sunday of 8th November, Christopher Leake reported on a drunken passenger who went berserk on a BA flight to Capetown after being told not to smoke.

In spite of that and a great deal more anecdotal evidence, examples of which are summarised in Alcohol Concern's On a Wing and a Beer: Alcohol Induced Sky Rage, there is a tendency to play down the role of alcohol, portraying it as one of a large number of factors which may cause disruptive behaviour. The Minister himself, Dr. John Reid, says that alcohol abuse is not the major cause of misbehaviour, while recognising that there is a lack of reliable information. He thinks it would be wrong to single out alcohol-related incidents for particular attention.

One of the reasons for that attitude may be that most people drink and do not like to admit that what they see as a harmless and agreeable habit may be the cause of enormous problems in our society. Nobody would dare to suggest that airlines should be discouraged from serving endless free drinks or that people who do not drink should not involuntarily subsidise the passengers who do. If the more serious incidents which come to the attention of the media are related to alcohol abuse it would be irresponsible not to pay special attention to them.

We should bear in mind, also, that when incidents are reported or are the subject of prosecutions, alcohol may well be a factor, even if it is not the main heading. Thus in the Heathrow police figures mentioned, drunkenness was the charge in 20 out of 41 cases, but may well have played a role in other cases where the charge was under one of the other Navigation Order offences. In the Flight Safety Committee's survey of disruptive passengers during August 1997, 186 incidents were reported, of which 55 were directly concerned with drunkenness; but, for instance, how many of the 74 who smoked when forbidden had been drinking as well? I hope that in the standard format of reporting which is to be adopted, the staff will be told to assess the offending passenger's alcoholic state, whatever the main reason for the report may be.

We are living in an age of violence and, as Professor Helen Muir of Cranfield University says, when aggressive and violent behaviour occurs on the streets, at football matches and in schools, it is not surprising that those incidents occur on aircraft as well. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said, the potential for such an incident to lead to the loss of 400 lives in a jumbo flying at 35,000 feet makes this behaviour

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literally intolerable. I hope we shall hear from the Government that a more vigorous policy will be pursued against "sky rage", and that we shall seek the co-operation of other governments in adopting measures that will cut the risk in their jurisdictions as well.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Gainford: My Lords, it is fortunate that my noble friend Lord Brabazon asked this Question. I do not want to be repetitive, but we all know that violent passengers are a menace to the safety of an aircraft as well as a serious disturbance to fellow passengers and airline staff. "Air rage" is becoming a serious matter and the public are wondering what can be done about it and how it can be done. I sincerely hope that this evening we may come a little closer to the solution.

My specific interest relates to the concern shown about the matter by the Air Safety Group, of which I am president. Also, the Minister and I have had a little correspondence about it. From the published reports of incidents, drink is the main problem, and a lot of drinking at airports and on board an aircraft is due to stress. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned how we live in a violent world. It is an unfortunate sign of the times that, though we live in a world with so many means of making life easier than it used to be, life has become more hurried; impatience sets in at any and every delay, particularly in transport, because of stress. That is but one example; human nature being what it is, there are many others. We can sympathise because many of us know what it is like. But, when we see the results of disruption on aircraft, we see the necessity for some law to act as a deterrent with its threat of legal action.

Last year, on 22nd July, Mr. Tom Brake--the Member in another place for Carshalton and Wallington--raised the suggestion that Her Majesty's Government adopt the US Federal Aviation Administration ruling that no liquor should be consumed on board an aircraft other than that provided by the operator either as a complimentary drink or purchased as part of the bar sales. The Minister, the right honourable Glenda Jackson, replied that she did not see how that could be enforced.

At present airlines have to provide their own arrangements for dealing with violent passengers. There again we see that, were a definite law to be enforced, it could produce a reduction in the number of passengers being tempted to let their feelings of frustration or fear--such as when a passenger is taking a first flight--get the better of them. The cabin crew would be confident that they had the power of law to back them up.

When drink is the main source of the problem, there are two likely reasons. First, the passenger may be under the influence of alcohol bought as pre-flight drinks; secondly, alcohol other than that purchased at duty free shops may be brought on board and consumed. Many airlines do not specify the weight or size limit of hand baggage. Arguments over what can and cannot be taken into a cabin can be a source of aggression against the crew by a passenger who has already had the proverbial "few". A warning in relation to the limits on hand baggage should be printed clearly on each ticket and not just included in a mass of small print.

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On 3rd November 1998, a seminar was held by the United Kingdom Flight Safety Committee. Among the salient points raised were the limitations of the powers of control by airline staff. There is a difficulty in gathering evidence in a moving environment where crew and passengers disperse in a hurry and are unwilling to be delayed, particularly where the process falls under a foreign jurisdiction. Existing legislation was not designed to cope with the advent of the disruptive passenger, for which there is no specific offence. Many public order offences only allow arrest at the time when the offence is taking place. By the time the aircraft lands, the action is likely to be over and the arrest cannot be made.

A policy of zero tolerance by airline operators has been suggested. This could be dangerous. Combating violence with violence may result in cabin staff committing offences, inviting legal action against themselves. No airline staff or police are free from law breaking. Last Sunday the Mail on Sunday had an item whose headline was "Captain accused of pilot rage on BA jet". The case was that one of the passengers thought there was something wrong with the aircraft, left his seat just before the plane was going to take off and tried to get into the flight cabin. The captain had to force him back to his seat, but the passenger has been attempting to sue British Airways.

To sum up, the problem seems to require two solutions: a definite law to act as a deterrent and to help airline staff, and an investigation into sources of stress where air travel is involved. In any crowded airport there are many examples of this. What is needed is clear guidance for staff with an accent on the needs of aircraft commanders, the support of airline management, the support of security forces and also--and this is important--the education of the public as to its legal responsibilities. I look forward very much to what the noble Lord the Minister has to say.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Mountevans: My Lords, like others of us, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Brabazon for asking his Question tonight. He was perhaps a little modest in defining his locus standi, but so be it. Apart from the directorship he mentioned, I recall him as a respected aviation Minister and also one who on retirement (if that is the right word) devoted himself to taking "the Brabazon Bill"--the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Act of 1996--through this House. By doing so he addressed the very problem of air rage, or at least one element of it.

I referred to a problem, but my noble friend's question leaves definition of that problem rather open. I have the benefit of advice from the Board of Airline Representatives in the United Kingdom, from British Airways, from British Midland, from the Civil Aviation Authority and from Virgin Atlantic, but in a way I have only scratched the surface. What about the Association of Chief Constables, or BAA Plc, or indeed other privately owned airports, or the municipal airports, or the British Transport Police, or BALPA, the pilots' association, whose President, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is not with us this evening?

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I could have listed many more parties to this problem but prefer to turn to the numbers--statistical information, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, called it--not an easy subject nor easy data to come by. Is the problem one quantifiable by media coverage, where several rather violent issues, which have been mentioned by other noble Lords, have been highlighted while the coverage of road rage seems to have declined? The numbers seem to conflict. BA reports 260 incidents in the year to November last. Around 81 per cent. of these were smoking related, which I think has a bearing on the discussion we have had about drink. This suggests to me that, when drink and smoke and then drink and smoke are replaced by drink and then drink, the problems posed increase out of all proportion.

In addressing the problems of air rage, perhaps we should consider how people's behaviour changes in a non-smoking environment, we should consider stress, as has been mentioned. We should consider the UK Flight Safety Committee's figure of 168 incidents compared with the British Airways' figure of 260 incidents which I have already mentioned. Perhaps we should be looking at how to examine the alleged 400 per cent. increase in air rage incidents (a four-fold increase, but from what?) alleged by the magazine Air Transport World. In other words, I believe we should put knee-jerk reaction on hold until we have defined the problem. Only by doing so can we begin to address the issue. Before we tackle where we are going, we must define--and again noble Lords have said this--the point from which we are starting.

Having defined the problem, we can move on. Rightly or wrongly we have taken the first step, and I congratulate DETR on doing so. Using my knee-jerk reaction allusion, I hope we make progress in a more measured way, establish the problem and then address the solutions. Firstly, is air rage a long-haul or a short-haul problem? Is it a scheduled service or a charter problem? It has been mentioned that holiday-makers want to have fun from beginning to end. Is it an international or a domestic problem? Is it absolutely and only a drink-related problem? I very much doubt that. After all, I am sure that all noble Lords who have spoken will agree that they have seen boorishness on buses, on trains and on ships, none of them notable for their free refreshment policy.

Secondly, we need a defined method of reporting incidents. Again that has come up. We are largely in agreement so far tonight in many respects. We have to have a defined method of reporting incidents. I have already mentioned the difficulty of defining numbers. Thirdly, we need to address enforcement and legislation through police initiatives, through black lists, but I understand that there are civil liberty and data protection implications. It does seem to me that they are the same for another problem we have--football hooliganism--and I wonder if the two could not be addressed in parallel. Then I think we need international action. I mentioned the professionals who advised me; I mentioned the professionals whom I have not approached. May I mention the DETR and the Home Office as the UK bodies concerned with getting it right before DETR and the Foreign Office go off to the world to spread the gospel.

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Common standards of security and of carriers' liability, Warsaw Convention style, remind us that things will not be easy. But aviation safety has evolved, and this is a safety issue. It is one where I believe we could be a star, indeed the leading player. To advance the cause will require industry and government co-operation. The industry may find itself having to fund some quite considerable costs. As I said, safety is paramount and I believe that these costs are worth funding. Define the problem, make sure that wheresoever in the world offences occur they are appropriately punished, and then we shall have something of which to be proud. The whole issue will take time but it will be time well spent.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Hacking: My Lords, perhaps I could very briefly intervene in this debate, having worked very closely with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, on the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Act. I congratulate him again on the successful passage of that Bill and I thank him for raising the issue again. I know he has closely followed these matters since the passing of that Act and I am grateful to him for introducing this debate.

Noble Lords, particularly the last noble Lord who spoke, referred to international action, but really the problem has to be dealt with first of all at home and that is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, did in introducing to the House the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Act to fill a serious lacuna concerning criminal offences taking place in foreign aircraft arriving in this country. I suggest in this debate, therefore, that we first and foremost address what we can do at home. Having examined a number of cases in which violence has taken place in aircraft, I have to say that, while not all have been drink-related, many have. I also have to tell your Lordships that in the great majority of those cases which have been drink-related the offender has begun his drinking well before he boarded the aircraft. There is a very great discipline among air-crew in watching passengers. There are very few examples, if any, of alcohol supplied by the crew having played a part in raising the temper and the misbehaviour of the offender.

My second point relates to the fact that the alcohol is often not only consumed by the offender before he joins the aircraft but he has also made matters worse, and compounded his disability through alcohol, by continuing to drink alcohol during the flight. I said that I believe we should pay attention to such matters from a home base. Therefore, I have two suggestions to make, one of which I picked up from the noble Lord, Lord Gainford. First, certainly so far as concerns British-registered aircraft, I suggest that it ought to be an offence to consume on an aeroplane alcohol which has not been provided by the operator. My knowledge of this is based only upon the reports that I have read, but I understand that in the very serious Airtours case which took place recently, in which the air stewardess was hit over the head with a bottle of Vodka, the passenger had been consuming substantial amounts of alcohol that he himself had brought on to the aircraft.

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My second suggestion regarding starting at home is concerned not only with warning the retailers and alerting them not to provide alcohol to passengers who are about to board aircraft and who have clearly already been affected by alcohol. I applaud all the suggestions about notices, and so on. However, the airport authorities do not have the power, for example, to carry out a breathalyser test on such passengers. It is very difficult to know how much alcohol someone has consumed. Therefore, if there were powers given by our legislation to enable airport operators in the UK to apply a breathalyser test to passengers who are about to board an aircraft, the matter could be established quite clearly as to whether or not the passenger in question is fit to travel. I make those two practical suggestions because I believe that we must start at home as, indeed, did the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, with the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Act 1996.

7.21 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I am very grateful to have the opportunity of speaking in this evening's debate introduced so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. Since I have been deputy chairman of the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse I have, over the years, stood up to speak from these Benches mildly to criticise the drinking culture in this country as regards violent behaviour and have received little support. Therefore, I am very glad to have the support tonight of my noble friend Lord Avebury who, I see, gives as much vigour to alcohol abuse as he does to the evils of smoking.

In the All-Party Group on Alcohol Misuse we have during the past three years paid particular attention to violence and alcohol. However, I fear that we have been remiss in that we have probably not paid enough attention to violence on aircraft. Indeed, we produced quite a detailed report for the previous government for which we took evidence from many experts in such matters, such as police officers, probation officers, prison governors, and so on, regarding the difficulties of alcohol-related violence in particular sectors of British life.

I am afraid that violence related to alcohol, not only on aircraft but also in hospitals and on buses, has recently become more and more of an occurrence. However, under the present Government, I am glad to say that we have had some very productive and friendly discussions with the Home Office on the subject of alcohol and violence. A short while ago I took part in discussions with Alcohol Concern and the chairman of the all-party group. I am happy to say that it is my understanding that the Government are considering such matters most carefully and are looking for legislation whereby some remedies could be applied. I look forward to the outcome.

One of the important comments made during our discussions with the Home Office was made by Mr. Boateng. As a lawyer, he is absolutely right. He said that the cultural attitude to drunkenness in our country, which differs to that in some other European countries, is aggravated somewhat not only by the tolerant view that many take to friends and relatives who

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become drunk and disorderly and misbehave in a way which would not be tolerated elsewhere, but also by the view taken in the courts. Where drunkenness is related to crime, it is often seen and presented as a mitigating rather than an aggravating factor. That is true and is, perhaps, the basis of the problem.

Many of us have travelled with airlines over the years and have witnessed instances of drunken and disorderly behaviour. As mentioned by other speakers, that happens not only on the ground but also in the aircraft itself. We must face the reality that cultural behaviour in relation to alcohol is not easy to change. We have, happily, seen some changes in drink driving but unfortunately, as statistics show, such instances occur mainly with young males. It is a habit for them to go out, usually at a weekend, and to drink a lot very quickly. That can result in disorderly and often violent behaviour.

It is my own experience, gained especially from going on holiday, that often the tendency to drink starts in the airport. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, said, it often happens as a result of stress brought on by the frustrations involved in flight delays. Perhaps I may make a suggestion here for charter companies, whose flights are often subject to delays due to no fault of their own. When there is a significant delay of, say, three or four hours' duration and much drinking takes place, I believe that it should be incumbent upon them to observe very carefully the behaviour of the passengers who will ultimately go on the flight. They should ensure that those who are not in a fit condition to fly are prevented from doing so.

I absolutely agree that zero tolerance on an aeroplane is, as the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, said, a difficult concept to apply. Those who are flying aircraft are not in the business of controlling unruly people. Perhaps I may quote an ancient Russian proverb which, roughly translated, is as follows:

    "A drunken man thinks that the sea is only knee deep".
People in that frame of mind on an aircraft are indeed dangerous and should be prevented from boarding the flight in the first place.

I do not have very much more to say, apart from the fact that some connection has been made this evening with smoking. Again, perhaps I may mention my noble friend Lord Avebury who today made a vigorous attack on smoking. I sat on my hands listening very quietly as I serve on the committee which is examining the issue of smoking in your Lordships' House. Perhaps your Lordships will indulge me further and allow me to use another quote. This one comes from King James I of England, who took a fairly strong view on smoking and drinking. In a short publication entitled, A Counterblast to Tobacco, he said:

    "Smoking is a branch of the sin of drunkenness which is the root of all sins".

I can assure noble Lords that the committee will not be taking King James I very seriously, but that quotation may be of interest to my noble friend. However, I believe that the airlines should be congratulated on what they have done as regards smoking. I took a non-smoking trip to New York over Christmas. I should say that I went

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backwards and forwards in order to get a cheap flight. I actually went to Brussels first and then on to New York. I had a very agreeable flight in the company mostly of Hasidic Jews, who do not suffer from the habit of drinking, and some very mild-mannered family groups from other countries in Europe, which perhaps do not have our cultural problems.

Airlines need to deal with drunkenness. They have dealt with smoking but they need to deal with drunkenness with a much more serious attitude so as to prevent such people boarding the aircraft in the first place. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's reply because I am absolutely certain that the Government are taking drink and violence most seriously. I look forward to hearing some productive suggestions which may be incorporated in legislation in due course.

7.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, for raising this issue and to all noble Lords who contributed. Violent behaviour is unpleasant wherever it occurs. Unfortunately, stress, drunkenness and violence afflict us in many areas of society but they are particularly unpleasant when they occur on board an aircraft, where people cannot escape the situation. Violent incidents can also have extremely worrying implications for the safety of the flight concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and others, graphically illustrated such instances.

The Government are concerned about the problem of disruptive behaviour. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others pointed out, my right honourable friend John Reid, Minister of Transport, called together representatives of airlines, airport operators, the police and aviation trade unions last November. The objective was to ensure that appropriate action to address the problem is taken by all concerned. That meeting identified a particular problem to which several noble Lords have alluded--the collection and consistency of information about violent incidents. I must stress--in part echoing the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans--that although violent crime on aircraft is extremely serious, it is also extremely rare. In 1998 the Civil Aviation Authority recorded to December some 89 incidents of inappropriate passenger behaviour under its mandatory occurrence reporting scheme database. I accept that there may be some inconsistency of reporting. Nevertheless, standards of reporting are laid down. That database should contain reports of any incidents on UK-registered or UK-operated aircraft that the commander considered to be

    "endangering, or if not corrected would endanger, the aircraft, its occupants or any other person".

Without attempting to associate the different sins in which James I and VI engaged, of those incidents less than a majority were directly associated with alcohol although that may have been a factor in others. In fact, 27 of the 89 incidents related to alcohol or drugs abuse, 18 involved smoking where prohibited, three involved a combination of both and three involved the carriage of

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dangerous goods. The remainder of the incidents largely concerned abusive behaviour. The cause is difficult to determine and, again, may be alcohol-related. Only 38 incidents involved physical violence.

I accept that there are substantially differing statistics. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed to other sources of information, and higher levels of violence are reported by the airlines themselves. Several noble Lords referred to a survey of 10 UK airlines by the Flight Safety Committee in August 1997, which reported 186 incidents for that month alone, which suggests 3,000 such incidents a year. Even that figure, appalling though it is, should be compared with the 85 million passengers who are carried per year and the 961,000 aircraft movements annually.

Violence on board aircraft remains a serious problem and the meeting last November presided over by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport established a working group with the airlines, police and trade unions to consider ways of centrally collating reports of incidents. It is likely that we shall need to draw a distinction between different sorts of incidents and, in particular, to identify those that are not serious enough to be reported to the CAA under the mandatory scheme. The working group will consider also whether any research into the causes of disruptive behaviour is necessary and, if so, how it might be funded.

A number of noble Lords raised the question of whether the courts have sufficient powers. UK courts clearly have sufficient powers in most instances. Section 92 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 applies UK criminal law to acts committed on board a British-controlled aircraft when it is in flight anywhere in the world. That means that a person committing a criminal act such as assault on a UK airline while it is in flight outside the UK can be tried and punished in the UK. UK courts can deal also with crimes of violence on board foreign aircraft landing in the UK, as a consequence of Section 92 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 being amended by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, in 1996. I congratulate the noble Lord on that amendment and his legal adviser, my noble friend Lord Hacking, who was also involved. The importance of that successful amendment was demonstrated only last week, when there were press reports of a disruptive passenger on board an American Continental Airways flight into Gatwick. If that event had occurred before the noble Lord's amendment, the UK courts would not have had the power to deal with that offender.

Sentencing in the UK is, of course, a matter for the UK courts. It is useful that the Court of Appeal ruled recently that where an offence had been committed on board an aircraft, it could be appropriate to impose a more severe punishment than had the same offence been committed in a public place on the ground. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, asked for an assurance that UK courts treat UK nationals and non-UK nationals the same way. I assure the noble Lord that they do. When offences are committed on board UK aircraft or aircraft landing in the UK, the nationality of the offender is immaterial. I believe that the courts have established that.

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In addition to normal criminal offences, a number apply specifically to aircraft passengers. Under the Air Navigation Order the four relevant offences are to enter an aircraft when drunk or to be drunk on an aircraft; recklessly to enter or negligently to act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or any person therein; to smoke in situations where smoking is prohibited; and to fail to obey the lawful command of the commander of the aircraft.

The offences of drunkenness and endangerment are punishable by a substantial fine of up to £5,000 on summary conviction or up to two years' imprisonment and a fine on conviction on indictment. The two other offences carry a maximum penalty of a £2,500 fine. I believe your Lordships would accept that those penalties are adequate for the type of offences that they are designed to cover. A number of additional offences have been suggested, including a ban on passengers taking any alcohol except that supplied on a complimentary basis by the airline operators. The noble Lord, Lord Gainford, suggested that was the FAA rule in America. Most UK airliners ban passengers from consuming their own alcohol on board and there is no substantial evidence to suggest that breaches of that rule are a substantial problem. It would be difficult to turn such a ban into law. Nevertheless, it is something that the airlines themselves will be considering.

The other problem that arises relates to arrestable offences. The airlines and the police would like offences under the Air Navigation Order to be arrestable. There are clearly problems involved because they are not arrestable on the ground. I have some sympathy with that view and accept that enforcement of the articles would be easier if the police had the power of arrest. There are two legislative ways that could be achieved. Either the maximum penalty for the offences must be increased to five years' imprisonment, which would require an amendment to the Civil Aviation Act 1982, or the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 would require amendment to bring the relevant offences within the definition of "arrestable" offences.

One would have to make a distinction between the various offences covered by the Air Navigation Order. A maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment would be regarded by most noble Lords--whatever their opinions of smoking in this place or elsewhere--as an excessive penalty for smoking where prohibited or failing to obey the lawful commands of the commander of the aircraft, although that is possibly more marginal. Either case would require primary legislation and we will be considering that in due course.

There are other examples where the Government have considered disruptive passenger behaviour that may fall short of endangering the aircraft but which interferes with crew members in the course of their duties and has the potential to divert them from proper safety duties and cause considerable unpleasantness to them and other passengers. The Government intend an amendment to the Air Navigation Order to prohibit behaviour of that kind. Without pre-empting future Queen's Speech debates, I welcome the putative support from the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, were we to come forward with such a change.

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The other problem relates to offences committed abroad which are pursued abroad and prosecuted in foreign courts. Not all states have taken jurisdiction for crimes committed on foreign aircraft en route to their airports. Consequently, the police in those states have been powerless to act against people who have committed acts of violence on board UK and other aircraft. The Government have raised the matter recently with the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We have offered to provide an aviation law specialist to serve on the working group that it has established to examine that problem.

Where jurisdictions do have rights, I know that some airlines, like some noble Lords in this debate, have been concerned that the jurisdictions have not regarded the offences seriously. One must have some sympathy with the Spanish authorities in that respect. They have to deal with a number of English drunks in all kinds of circumstances. It is also true that people jump bail within the UK jurisdiction, as well as in Spain. I appreciate that the airlines' concern is that lenient treatment will send the wrong signals to offenders. Airlines are particularly concerned where the offence has occurred on a British aircraft and could theoretically have been capable of prosecution either in the UK or in the country of destination. However, there is a problem that, where action has been taken, even if it has ended in relatively lenient treatment, it is difficult for us to argue that we should try the same offence twice--in other words, charge the offender again on that person's return to the UK. We are attempting to engage in ICAO and elsewhere with other governments to try to agree a more common approach to these problems.

Arising from our increased appreciation of these issues and from the meeting held in November, I wish to sum up some of the actions being taken by the Government. We are considering amending the Air Navigation Order to introduce the offence of interfering with cabin crew members. We are pressing for action internationally to ensure that crimes on board aircraft will be prosecuted appropriately in all states; and we have set up a working party to ensure the better collection of information. As the noble Lord suggests, more consistent collection of information will help identify areas for further action not only by the Government but by the airlines and airport operators in respect of behaviour at airports and by the police. The Government and the airlines are working closely together in that respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether BAA, for example, was involved. Although BAA members were not present at the November meeting, they were represented there by the Airport Operators Association. On the issue of notices warning people about alcohol, the CAA is considering the need and the scope for posting such notices.

I was also asked by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, what is the deadline for the working group to report. We have not set a precise deadline. The first meeting of the working group will be held on 1st February. The timescale will be decided at that meeting. The preliminary discussions will be held in private but it is intended that the findings will be published.

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The airlines have taken on responsibilities as well as the Government. Reference has been made to the Flight Safety Committee and the commitment to Conduct 99, which set out a 12-point plan for combating disruptive behaviour and alcohol abuse on aircraft. The CAA has published a leaflet, Travelling Safely, which provides guidance to passengers on drinking and drink-related offences.

Finally, we ought all to register our sympathy for the air crews who have to deal with this kind of problem. They are often in a very difficult situation and have to make fine judgments in relation to the safety of their passengers and aircraft. Our sympathy is with them. We are now engaged in a co-operative effort with airlines, airports and the police to tackle this scourge of air rage, sky rage, or whatever we may choose to call it. It is very unpleasant, and noble Lords on all sides are agreed that we must have a more effective strategy. The Government are committed to taking that strategy further, not only in this country but internationally.

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