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Transport Security: Travelling without Fear (HC 96-i)

Transport Committee 6 Dec 2006

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Evidence given by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Transport, and Ms Niki Tompkinson, Director of Transport Security and Contingencies Directorate, Department for Transport:

Q559 Mr. Eric Martlew: On security, obviously there is controversy about the introduction of identification cards, ID cards, in this country. Would it be an advantage to transport security to have the ID cards?

Mr Alexander: Clearly, I am a supporter of the Government's ambition to be able to introduce ID cards. One of the aspects with which we are familiarising ourselves, of potential terrorists, is the issue of having multiple identities; that does not extend simply to means of identification, but also one is learning that they are developing the capacity to have a number of different identities when they are planning potential attacks. I am not sure I would go further than that, but suffice it to say that, as a Government, we are working hard on this issue. There is a range of different potential benefits which identity cards offer; one of them clearly is this issue of identity fraud.

Q560 Chairman: Before we go on, can I ask you something simple; can you compel rail passengers to use your new and complicated technology?

Mr Alexander: Which piece of technology are you describing?

Q561 Chairman: You know there are already existing machines which can register not only your eye specifications and your fingerprints, and all the other things that are being tried out at various airports at the moment; you have a machine which is capable of being installed in railway stations which can give you detailed scans over the human body. Can you compel rail passengers to undergo examination by these methods?

Mr Alexander: We are not proposing, at this stage, any such things.

Q562 Chairman: No, I am not asking whether that is your intention, certainly not in the run-up to a general election, but I am asking just can you do it?

Mr Alexander: For example, the coverage that is in the newspapers today, in terms of iris recognition and potential use at Heathrow Airport, I can understand how the perception would develop that is in relation to security; in fact, that is a Home Office-led initiative in terms of immigration, rather than being in relation to the physical security of the Airport. I would not wish to leave the Committee with any impression that we are looking to establish a legal base, or have identified a legal base, which would allow us to use that technology in relation to rail passengers.

Chairman: The Department has not any intention of following that.

Q563 Mr. Eric Martlew: Surely, the carrier - I will go on about the West Coast Mainline as I always do - or Virgin could say, "If you don't go through these checks we'll refuse to take you as a passenger"?

Mr Alexander: I would draw a distinction between what we would seek, in certain circumstances, to have the authority to do and what a train operating company would.

Q564 Mr. Eric Martlew: You would agree that the operator could do that; they could refuse to let a passenger on the train if they did not agree?

Mr Alexander: No, I would not agree with the scenario that you are describing, both because, in terms of the particular technology which was described, it is not something that we are proposing putting on Doncaster or York or anywhere else, the East Coast Line or indeed on the West Coast Line. It will be in terms of more appropriate technology which may have a role to play in the future on railways. I can offer Niki the chance to speak.

Ms Tompkinson: Where we were with the trials, as you will have realised when I think you had your own briefing on them, all of the trials were run on a voluntary basis, so passengers were asked to volunteer to use the technology.

Q565 Chairman: Yes, we do understand that, but actually that is not the question we were asking.

Ms Tompkinson: One of the issues that we are looking at and, when we finally examine the legal position, will be reporting to the Secretary of State on is exactly who can compel whom to do what, in terms of physical security. There is a difference between passengers and the terms on which they buy a ticket for the railway as opposed to air passengers, where there is something in the terms of the ticket which requires them to go through security.

Q566 Chairman: That is an international commitment though, you are telling us; a ticket?

Ms Tompkinson: It is a commitment to air travel; it does not have to be international air travel.

Q567 Chairman: I thought it was an international agreement?

Ms Tompkinson: It applies to domestic air passengers as well. Going forward, there will be various options, depending on what, if anything, is rolled out on the open networks. One of the issues that we will need to consider is would it be for the operator to implement security or would it be a further role for the police; and of course the police do have police powers. There is still a little bit more analysis to be done about the options going forward, but we are alive to the legal issues and what we can or cannot compel people to do.

Chairman: Yes, I think the House of Commons will be wanting to be live to the legal issues.


Q582 Mr. Eric Martlew: Obviously, reading the press, there has been nuclear material brought in on an aircraft, probably from Russia. Do you look on the fact that we did not detect it as a breach of security?

Mr Alexander: Of course, I need to caveat my remarks by saying there is an ongoing police investigation and I hope the Committee will bear with me, therefore, on what I can say. Firstly, let me try just to clarify the responsibilities. The primary aim of transport security, for which I hold responsibility, is to prevent large-scale loss of life, or major disruptions to the transport systems. A small amount of particular substances, however, is very hard to detect, but small quantities are significantly harmful only if ingested, for example, in relation to Polonium 210. There is a separate programme run by the Home Office known as Cyclamen, which aims to prevent radiological materials from entering the country illicitly and, as I say, responsibility for that lies with the Home Office. Equipment for the detection of undeclared or illicit movements of radioactive material has been installed at a number of sea ports and airports and has screened a number of arrivals.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB