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How the UK Border Agency nearly blew Robin Hood Airport "sky high"

A calamity at the "Twitter Joke Trial" airport of which you will not have heard

Robin Hood Airport, safe from menacing tweets at least. Photograph: B Doon

The security managers of Robin Hood Airport are well known for their zeal in searching Twitter while off-duty for tweets containing supposed "bomb threats" which are nothing of the kind

But while those responsible with the safety of the public and of staff at this South Yorkshire airport were concerning themselves in January 2010 with the now infamous tweet of Paul Chambers, a infinitely more dangerous incident had recently occurred, about which there appears to have been no publicity until yesterday.

 

A dangerous load

On 10 November 2009 an aircraft carrying anti-tank ammunition landed at the airport. It appears the manager of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) based at the airport decided that his staff were to carry out checks on the packed ammunition. It was evident that this was a hazard, but the manager proceeded with the idea and even directed the plane to a separate part of the airport for the exercise to take place.

The pilot warned the manager that the crates of ammunition were explosive. The pilot added that the crates should not be examined by any unqualified staff. But the warnings were ignored. The UKBA manager had determined that unqualified staff were going to unpack live ammunition from its casing. (One presumes all this was also to be done on a concrete floor and in the near proximity of a fuelled aircraft.)

The UKBA staff did as they were told and opened the five crates, each of which contained five rounds of anti-tank ammunition.  The staff then partially removed some explosive devices from protective packaging. We are told that this entailed the staff removing three separate layers of packaging, including opening the protective tubing and exposing live rounds of the anti-tank ammunition.

It was about a stupid decision as such a manager could make, and a decision putting the lives of staff and many others at genuine risk.

 

A matter of Health and Safety

When this incident came to the notice of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there was an immediate investigation. It was clear that there had been a breach of Sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974

As the HSE later stated:

The HSE investigation found that UKBA had failed to carry out a suitable risk assessment to enable them to complete the checks safely. Had they done so, they would have recognised several problems.

There was a significant risk that the ammunition could detonate if it was dropped which could have detonated the whole cargo. As a result, members of the public, airport workers and nearby aircraft were all put at risk on that day.

This was an understatement.  Although ammunition is (of course) not designed to explode easily, unpacking such materials is rightly the job of trained professionals.

In normal circumstances, there would have then been a prosecution of UKBA for its fundamental breach of health and safety law.

 

Censure, not prosecution

But UKBA was not to be prosecuted. This is because, as a Crown body, it cannot be prosecuted. This constitutional oddity means that UKBA - and other such bodies - escape the processes of the criminal justice system even when there has been a clear breach of the legal obligations which nonetheless still apply to them.

So instead of a public prosecution, the HSE had to follow a closed process called "Crown Censure". This is, in effect, a sequence of meetings where culpability is discussed and eventually determined. The meetings are not public, and the minutes of the meetings are not provided to the public. (Indeed, the HSE press officer laughed down the phone when I asked if the papers could be made available.)

Eventually, UKBA "accepted" the censure. The HSE said:

Our investigation into the details of the cargo verification by UKBA staff at Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield airport found that the failings by the Agency were serious enough to warrant this course of action.

The evidence brought to light by the HSE investigation would be sufficient to provide a realistic prospect of conviction of UKBA in civilian courts. This Crown Censure is the maximum enforcement action that HSE can take and should serve to illustrate how seriously we take the failings we identified."

We are then told:

Mr Paul Darling, Corporate Director, Resources and Organisational Development, of the UK Border Agency attended the Crown Censure meeting on 19 December 2012 at the HSE premises in Sheffield and accepted the findings on behalf of UKBA.

But this cannot be a satisfactory process for matters of public safety. A number of people were put at risk that day by the sheer irresponsibility of a UKBA manager.

 

Tweets and ammunition and "Security Theatre"

UKBA has now had two years and a bit to get its act together after almost blowing a good part of Robin Hood Airport sky high. A press statement put out today said:

We deeply regret this incident. As acknowledged by the Health and Safety Executive, we have already made significant changes to the way we manage health and safety to avoid a similar incident occurring in the future.

UKBA, however, did not tell what these "significant changes" were. 

The contrast of superficial and and sensible approaches to safety has been called by the great Bruce Schneier as "Security Theatre". In airports and elsewhere, a lot is done just for show, and the elaborate gestures do little or nothing to actually achieve improved security. 

It would seem Robin Hood Airport is a case study of such a misconceived policy. In the space of a few months between November 2009 and January 2010, one security manager there almost caused a disaster while another concentrated on a harmless jokey tweet. 

And only the latter led to the criminal process even being engaged.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was defence solicitor in the "Twitter Joke Trial" appeal at the High Court