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

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


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

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Has Brexit burst the British housing bubble?

The fall in value of the pound is having a negative impact on property prices.

The high cost of housing in the UK has almost nothing to do with supply and demand. What matters is political control. Rents are high because landlords have gained the upper hand politically. The consequences are vividly illustrated in Ken Loach’s new film focusing on inequality in Britain, I’ Daniel Blake.  As a student in the 1980s I paid £9 a week to rent a room in a shared house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Private rent was low because for decades before then rents had been regulated. It was the lifting of that regulation that meant rents could rise so that now students have to borrow vast sums of money just to have a place to live. Today’s students pay many multiples more in rent than I ever did, and millions of families with children are also struggling because they have to rent privately.

Because rents have been allowed to rise as high as landlords can get away with, the landlords have been encouraged to buy up more and more properties that were once social housing or lived in by a family, who had bought the property with a mortgage. The number of people renting privately doubled between the last two censuses of 2001 and 2011. That has never happened before. It was the end result of years of deregulation and the withdrawal of our government from representing our interests in housing. Well-regulated private renting is a benefit, but without rent regulation it becomes a social evil.

Housing prices are not determined by supply and demand because you do not have a choice about needing to be housed. Allow an unregulated market to develop when social housing is also being cut and there is no choice not to buy what is on offer, other than sleeping on the streets. Prices will go sky-high. The purchase prices for mortgage borrowers also rise to astronomical levels as first-time buyers are competing with landlords to buy properties, and so have to be able to secure a mortgage equal to the amount a landlords can wring out of people desperate for a home.

In the first blog in this series on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty, Stephen Hill, director of C2O Futureplanners, explained: “There are over one million less affordable homes than there were in 1980. The population has grown by nearly nine million people. Incomes at the median level are flat, and secure employment is increasingly scarce.” He is correct, but the situation is even worse than that — it is not lack of housing that is the problem. Each annual census in the UK records the amount of housing that exists at each point in time. It does this by recording the number of rooms in homes over a certain size. The number of rooms per person has risen at every census since 1981.

The 2011 census was the first to count bedrooms and found that in England and Wales there were 66 million for a population of 55 million (21 million of whom were married or in a civil partnership). So even if we make the ludicrous assumption that only married people share a bed and no children use bunk-beds, there were at least 22 million bedrooms empty on census night 2011. We have not been building a huge number of new houses or flats in recent years, but we have been adding extensions on to our existing homes and so we now have more housing than we have ever had before, per person and per family. We just share it out more unfairly than we have ever done before.

If housing prices were about supply and demand then our surplus of bedrooms would result in falling prices, but this is not a free market. You are not free to buy a flat that has been left empty in London to appreciate in value by its owner. They do not want to sell, or sometimes even rent it out, and you almost certainly would not have the money even if they did.

It is in the housing market that the majority of investments are made in the UK, housing is where most wealth is held. As we become more and more economically unequal it is through housing that we most clearly see that most of us are losers while just a few (who own multiple properties) are winners. Recent UK governments have been allowing wealth and income inequalities to rise and rise.

As Fred Harrison explained in the second blog in this series, government has not only withdrawn from regulating housing rents and profits to avoid this winner-takes-all-economics — it is now even prepared to provide £2bn to buy properties that home builders can’t sell so that they don’t need to lower prices even if landlords and first-time buyers will not buy their properties. The government sees renting-seeking as a social good, and believes that the market in housing should be regulated less and less with each year that passes, other than intervening to keep prices high and rising. Meanwhile, street homelessness rises, evictions rise, the debt of mortgage holders rises, housing prices rise and a small minority of the population become richer. So how will it end?

You might have thought that prices would stop rising when landlords stopped buying properties because the return on their investments in terms of rent would not making it worth their while paying, say, one million pounds for a three-bed house in a part of London near a tube station. Suppose that the most a family could pay was £20,000 a year in rent. The landlord’s “return” on their investment would only be two per cent a year, ignoring wear-and tear and anything else that they might be able to off-set against paying tax. If the forces that were actually at play were “supply and demand” then surely prices have to stop rising when people can no longer afford the rents?

However, landlords have another return: the escalating value of the property itself. If the property is rising by five per cent a year in value then they are making a seven per cent return when they rent it out, even if annual rents are just two per cent of its value. The rise of five per cent a year is due to speculation which is itself partly fed by a belief that the government of the day will do all it can to protect their investments, but it will only do that up to a certain point.

Because it needs to raise taxes a little given the state of the national finances, the UK government is now withdrawing its support of reckless profit taking by smaller landlords. In October 2016 a group of buy-to-let landlords lost their appeal in the courts to try to continue to be able to claim their mortgage interest payments as a business expense. From 2017 only the largest of landlords who set up companies to rent out their properties will be able to continue to do that.

The government knows that the housing market is in trouble. That is why Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, announced that their “Help to Buy” scheme (which was aimed at the very best-off of potential first time buyers) will end in December 2016. The government knows that with the risk of falling house prices in future it cannot afford the guarantees that “Help to Buy” created. “Help to Buy” schemes were the previous Chancellor, George Osborne’s biggest spending commitment. They were designed to help inflate the housing market and keep prices rising, but eventually every speculative bubble has to burst.

On 21 September the first reports of a stalling market were released under headlines that included: “Q2 UK house sales at an all-time quarterly low says Land Registry”. UK Land Registry figures now show housing prices to have fallen in London by 7% so far in 2016, with the number of sales roughly halving. Investors have stopped buying; if a recent investor wants to sell they have to do so at a loss. Nationally prices fell by 4.5%.

So what happened to the magic-money-tree? In short the pound fell in value and it has been continuing to fall ever since the UK voted to leave the EU. There was always going to be “the event” that triggered the end of speculation and it is looking more and more likely as if Brexit was that event. Once the pound begins to fall in value then any overseas investor knows that if they buy property in the UK, even if its value in pounds does not fall, it will be worth less to them in future.

Suddenly UK housing is not a safe asset. Suddenly prospective landlords actually have to try to rely on their tenants’ rent to pay back their borrowings. Suddenly housing prices change despite no great alteration in supply or demand. Suddenly the whole edifice looks unsafe, not just for the majority of young and almost all poor people in Britain, but for the large majority of the population.

It was never “supply and demand” that determined our housing costs and profits. Relying on that belief did not result in greatly improved cheaper housing for most people, but it was easy to claim that somehow tomorrow would be better if we just left it to the market — until we left it to the ever more unregulated market for too long. Housing costs, prices and supply are determined by governments, including those that shirk their responsibilities and have too much concern for the economic fortunes of the affluent few.


This is part of a series of blogs on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty. You can read others in the series on their website or sign up to attend their seminar in Parliament on the 16th November here: