Drones and the Counter-Terrorism Bill


Admiral Lord West of Spithead, APPG member and former Under-Secretary of State responsible for security, has moved an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism Bill: a new clause headed ‘Unmanned aerial vehicles.’  The probing amendment would introduce:

  1. a specific criminal terrorism offence where drones are fitted with explosives or firearms;
  2. a power to introduce ‘no-fly’ zones to reduce the risk of terrorism-related activities; and
  3. obligations on the Secretary of State to review and report to Parliament on drone use, including use by state bodies and agents to counter terrorism.

Hansard from the debate is here. The Independent covered the proposal here.

Lord West noted that there is no definition of ‘unmanned aerial vehicles,’ known as ‘drones,’ in primary or secondary legislation; and that the existing ‘light-touch’ regulation by the Civil Aviation Authority under the Air Navigation Order 2009 was devised before the ‘Maplins factor.’ West acknowledged the increasing public concern about misuse of drones, citing the Heathrow Airbus A320 incident and operations over nuclear power stations in France. He emphasised the Birmingham Policy Commission ‘the Security Impact of Drones’ assessment that small drones might be equipped with Improved Explosive Devises, or used to disperse chemical or biological agents; and the BALPA call for exclusion zones and the use of geo-fencing technology around airports.

Lord West identified a need for ‘more informed debate – outside the cross-government RPAS working group – on the risks and the response.’ He said that ‘I am not impressed…that the result of our [APPG] bids for FOIs and information from that group has been very poor. There needs to be open debate and transparency.’ This explains the scope of the proposed reporting obligation, which would encourage the Home Office to take a clear policy lead and collate information centrally. The reporting obligation would extend to any drone use by the military outside designated areas under the new Military Aviation Authority policy RA 1600, published last week. West added that a domestic ‘drone strike’ could be ‘symbolic’ – presumably in the light of our ally the US’s controversial drone programme outside conventional theatres of armed conflict. Members may be aware that yesterday’s debate coincided with reports that a 13 year old child had been killed in the first US drone strike in Yemen this year, and an errant quad copter found in the grounds of the White House.

The amendment was broadly supported by the Labour front bench, with Lord Rosser doubting the effectiveness of existing regulation, and commenting that ‘it is not obvious that there is a coherent direction of policy, at least on smaller UAVs if not larger ones.’ Baroness Hamwee, Liberal Democrat, pointed out the advantage of an absolute prohibition, beyond the remit of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

In response, Lord Ashton emphasised the work of the cross-government RPAS group, arguing that the group was already monitoring drone use and would consider potential gaps in legislation, including yesterday’s debate on this ‘important’ issue. The debate on nomenclature was not, on this occasion, a distraction. It appears that Lord West is well placed to trigger a high-level debate on the need for:

  1. specific consideration of the innovative uses of drones;
  2. transparency and informed debate on drone use and the formation of policy; and
  3. central direction to ensure that drones are exploited to the overall benefit of the UK.

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