Lord Craig of Radley (CB)
My Lords, I am happy to support the purposes of the Bill. The first two parts, dealing with our very dated airspace management and air traffic services, are timely. Periodic review and update of airport departure and approach procedures are necessary. No airline operator wants to climb away many miles in the wrong direction for their intended destination than strictly necessary for safe flight. No passenger wants to be delayed by protracted stacking of incoming flights leading to longer time being spent aloft. Adjustments, no doubt with some give and take, must be found. The CAA is well placed to co-ordinate and adjudicate as necessary. Looking to the future, much further, more complicated and, I dare say, controversial air traffic management arrangements will be required if and when urban air mobility, in the shape of unmanned flying taxis, for example, reaches our shores.
The Bill deals only with civil aviation, which raises the question: how does this meld with MoD and Royal Air Force requirements? RAF Northolt is a vital MoD and civilian-use airfield very close to Heathrow. Its departure and approach requirements must be fitted into the overall requirements of a very busy airspace. Elsewhere, Brize Norton, for example, which operates the larger types of RAF aircraft, including passenger and freight, will need departure and arrival flight paths that do not conflict with other civilian routings.
The RAF has representation in the CAA, which is important if MoD and civil requirements for airspace management and air traffic services are all to be taken into consideration and able to work effectively together. However, the Explanatory Memorandum and the Bill are silent on this obvious MoD interest. Maybe I missed it.
Regrettably, I was unable to attend the pre-briefing meeting arranged by the Minister to discuss the Bill, when I should have been able to raise and query these and other MoD-related issues. I have, however, given the Minister prior notice of my points and some others dealing with unmanned aircraft. For the record, I would welcome her response to them, either when winding up or by a letter later.
I welcome the part on unmanned aircraft, too. All flights need to take place without risk of collision. Like a bird strike, a small drone could smash the windscreen and injure those on the flight deck, or seriously damage or destroy the engine of an aircraft. It could be the cause of a fatal accident if a helicopter blade struck even a very small drone. A light unmanned aircraft could well be made unstable and plummet to earth if exposed to the significant wake turbulence created by large aircraft, endangering individuals on the ground.
Keeping all manned or unmanned aircraft well apart is fundamental to safety in the air. The incident at Gatwick in December 2018, which has been mentioned, gave us all a real live example of a highly annoying, disruptive and potentially disastrous event, for which Gatwick, the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Home Office seemed ill prepared. The lack of police or other authority powers to deal with the perpetrators or the offending drones became all too clear. The incentive that this Gatwick fright created—to devise real-time active disruption, even destruction, of illegally operated unmanned aircraft—has started to produce results, but can the Minister confirm that policy and legal cover are in place?
The consultation which led to Part 3 of the Bill covered many areas of weakness or incapacity that emerged from Gatwick’s experience, and the policy and legal approaches required. However, I would prefer part of the punishment for infringement by small unmanned aircraft to be confiscation by the police, and for lesser infringements to attract a fixed penalty notice. Knowing that one’s kit and airframe will be confiscated if the rules are flouted could be a powerful deterrent to illegal use, and a powerful deterrent including a fine or imprisonment is what is required. The risk of disaster if there is a collision, or even a near miss, is so great. Other considerations, such as alcohol tests for operators, come to mind. There may be good reasons why such requirements would not be workable, but I would welcome the Minister’s comments.
I note that permission to search the property of a suspected drone or SUA operator requires the approval of a chief constable, and that includes the chief constable of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. Presumably, similar arrangements cater for infringements of MoD holdings, and not just airfields. I am thinking of, for example, Faslane—the Royal Navy’s nuclear deterrent base—or the Atomic Weapons Establishment, because SUAs might mount more than just a surveillance camera, so possibly lethal dangers that they could carry should be considered.
The Bill stresses the responsibility of the pilot or controller of the drone. Is the Minister satisfied that the wording is comprehensive enough; for example, in paragraph 1 of Schedule 8? Does reference to the person controlling the unmanned aircraft also cover the case of the aircraft following an automated flight programme and not being controlled by an operator on the ground? The constable may have a problem requesting the automated drone to be grounded if that is how it has been programmed.
Referring to the fixed penalty notice section, the Explanatory Notes outline that an offence would be created had a person unknowingly flown within 50 metres of a building yet had caused no harm. It may not be for the passage of this Bill, but I foresee some difficulty in measuring and applying a 50-metre rule, possibly of short duration and without the advantage that a speed camera has of recording evidence on the road.
Finally, can the Minister confirm whether the consent of the devolved Administrations is required for any of these proposals, and if so, has it been obtained?