Police chief condemns security at Heathrow

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The Independent Online

Security at Heathrow Airport was condemned yesterday by the country's most senior anti-terrorist police officer, who said many high streets had better surveillance systems.

A review by the anti- terrorist branch found that the authorities at Heathrow had given out far too many security passes, allowing workers into restricted areas.

The criticisms follow two multimillion-pound robbers at Britain's biggest airport in the past five weeks in which criminals are thought to have used staff passes to get through security checks.

The warning by Assistant Commissioner David Veness, the head of Scotland Yard's specialist operations, comes at a time when security at Heathrow is supposed to be at its tightest because of the attacks of 11 September. Mr Veness warned other airports were likely to be no better.

The Government demanded an urgent review after the £4.6m foreign currency robbery on 11 February, when two unarmed thieves carrying security passes made off with eight cases of cash from a British Airways jet. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, insisted such a breach must be prevented from happening again.

But on Tuesday a second gang escaped with more than £2.1m in cash and jewels as well as secret diplomatic papers. Two men posing as security staff held up a security company van that had just unloaded containers from a South African Airways flight.

Both heists are believed to be inside jobs with the raiders using legitimate security passes. Scores of companies working at the airport provide their employees, many of them temporary, with passes and are currently responsible for security vetting.

Mr Veness said that among the ideas that needed to be considered was for Britain to adopt the example of the United States and remove security from the hands of airlines and the private sector and establish a state-run security force.

He said: "We have got grave concerns – airside passes; what is the coverage of CCTV; and who carries the can.

"The major problem appears to be the availability of legitimate passes," he said.

He added that there were far too many passes compared with the number of workers who needed to go air side – into secure areas. He said the vetting system for passes should be made more rigorous.

Mr Veness added: "We are very keen that the airside pass regime should be as effective as it conceivably can be and that CCTV is as good at Heathrow as it is in many high streets in London."

Commenting on the lack of surveillance cameras air side, he said: "There are better high streets than Heathrow."

He also stressed that it was wrong to distinguish between non-terrorist related crime and terrorism because a weakness in one showed a weakness in another.

Meanwhile, the Government was urged to disclose progress on the security review of Heathrow to restore confidence in British airports.

John McDonnell, the Labour MP whose Hayes and Harlington constituency covers part of the airport, speaking in the House of Commons, said: "The importance of this is obviously that money can be stolen or lives can be put at risk.

"Therefore we need to reassure the travelling public and restore confidence of the travelling public in the security of our airports."