The Minister for Transport Legislation and Maritime (Mr John Hayes)
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) have a long-standing interest in Egypt, and I acknowledge their interest and their concern about this matter. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to say more about flights to Sharm El Sheikh.
Hon. Members will know that in addition to being appointed three times as Minister of State in the Department for Transport, I am also a former Security Minister. This is therefore a subject close to my heart, and a matter of profound importance. The security and safety of our citizens is perhaps our most significant duty of all as a Parliament and as a Government. To that end, I know that my hon. Friend and all those who have contributed to the debate would not expect any Government of any persuasion to do anything that in any way compromised the safety and security of UK citizens, whether here in our country or travelling abroad.
The House will know that, on 31 October 2015, following its departure from Sharm El Sheikh international airport to St Petersburg, Metrojet flight 9268 disintegrated above Northern Sinai. As a result, a total of 224 passengers and crew of various nationalities were killed. Following that event, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office returned UK nationals and changed its travel advice. It advised against all but essential travel by air to or from that location. That had the effect of airlines halting all direct air services between the UK and Sharm El Sheikh airport. Flights to the UK from other Egyptian airports, including Cairo, Luxor, Marsa Alam and Hurghada, were unaffected.
Two years on, that advice remains in place, although the Government keep travel advice under constant review. For example, we recently updated the travel advice in Tunisia following the Sousse attack in 2015 and the changed security situation there, albeit in very different circumstances. Daesh claimed responsibility for the Metrojet attack, and the Egyptian and Russian Governments announced that the aircraft was brought down by an act of terrorism, as President Sisi stated in February 2016. The Egyptian authorities’ investigation has not come to any firm conclusion regarding the exact events that preceded the attack, and no perpetrator has been caught.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Woking and the right hon. Member for East Ham made the point that other countries have taken different decisions about resuming flights, which is true. Most flights to Sharm El Sheikh before the Metrojet crash were from the UK or Russia, however, and it is of course for each country to decide what security requirements they need to protect their citizens—it is not for me to comment on that—but the UK is working closely with the Egyptian Government to assess security at Egyptian airports. I can also say that the UK works with a number of other Governments to look at certain security situations, particularly where there are a large number of UK travellers, and I will say a bit more about the detail of that in the course of my remaining remarks.
Our experts on the ground in Egypt have been working closely with the Egyptian authorities since the Metrojet crash, and it has been acknowledged that the level of security at the airport has improved from where it was before—the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend both made that point. However, there is a wider range of security-related reasons, which the House would not expect me to go into in detail here, why we do not yet feel that we should resume flights.
The terrorism typified by this incident blights both Egypt and the United Kingdom, and the recent mosque attack in North Sinai serves as the latest reminder of the deplorable depths to which terrorist groups are willing to stoop in Egypt. The Prime Minister recently expressed her condolences to President Sisi over that attack, as well as her solidarity and support in the face of such a common threat. Egypt has long played a crucial role in fighting terrorism, and we stand resolutely by Egypt in that fight.
Let me be absolutely clear that this Government’s top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals and those flying into the UK, based on all the information we have available to us. The House will know that aviation remains a target for terrorist groups and that the threat is constantly evolving. We must respond accordingly to ensure that the protection of the public against those who would do us harm is as certain as possible. I emphasise that that is about both detection equipment at airports, which is changing and improving all the time, and the protocols in place at airports—training, management and how equipment is deployed. All those things have a profound effect on the safety of an airport, and we are working in all those areas with countries across the world to ensure that they can be their best and do their best.