Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the state of the investigation into the planting of a bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 on 21 December, and if he will give a further account of steps that he has taken in connection with airline security before and since the air disaster over Lockerbie?
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon) : The criminal investigation into the Lockerbie disaster is the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. Last Friday, 17 March he announced the present state of the investigation. He said that the type of item of baggage in which the tape recorder was contained was now known and that this would allow the police to take a further step forward in the inquiries that they are making, both on a national and an international basis. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate commented on the remarkable progress of the inquiry ; but he made it clear that the evidence which had been secured so far had not yet led to the identification of the person or persons responsible for placing the bomb in baggage on Pan Am flight 103. Inquiries were continuing with that end in view. My right hon. and learned Friend promised to authorise disclosure of relevant information about the progress of the investigation wherever possible and as soon as possible, recognising the general interest of the public and the particular interest of the relatives of the victims to be informed about the matter.
The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition also asked me about the steps I have taken over aviation security before and after the disaster at Lockerbie. Late in October 1988 the German police in Frankfurt discovered a radio cassette bomb, which contained barometric and timing devices indicating that it was intended to sabotage an aircraft.
The Department of Transport learnt of this on 17 November through the normal channels. On 18 November, the Department received a copy of a bulletin to United States airlines from the United States Federal Aviation Administration about the events in Frankfurt. Having received further information on 22 November about the radio cassette bomb, the Department issued a warning by telex on the same day to United Kingdom airports and airlines, pointing to the possible existence of other such devices. On the basis of this the authorities at Heathrow airport simulated a radio bomb and distributed photographs for the training of their security staff.
The Department subsequently sought photographs of the German radio bomb and additional information. The Department then set in train the preparation of a supplementary circular to the aviation industry covering the coloured photographs with a little extra information. On 19 December the Department's principal aviation security adviser signed the circular. This was not sent out because of the need to obtain reproductions of the photographs in colour.
On 21 December the Lockerbie disaster took place ; and on 22 December I made a statement in the Commons about it. At that time there was no certainty that the disaster was caused by sabotage ; indeed, many then considered it equally likely to have resulted from a structural failure of the aircraft. It was only on 28
Column 910December that the officer superintending the investigation at Lockerbie announced that the Pan American aircraft had been destroyed by a bomb. My Department immediately ordered increased security measures for United States airlines, particularly for hold baggage. I attended an emergency meeting of the National Aviation Security Committee on 5 January at which it was decided to bring in further measures in relation to cabin baggage, hold baggage and cargo. I made another statement, bringing the House up to date, on 10 January. Subsequently, I was concerned that our requirements for the control of access to restricted areas were not being properly observed and ordered new rules for the issue and use of passes at all United Kingdom airports. In particular, I asked the chairman of BAA, Sir Norman Payne, for a report on the security of restricted areas at BAA airports. His comprehensive report sets out measures which are being and will be taken, and I have asked for a follow- up report on progress in April.
The threat did not end with Lockerbie. There remained a risk from bombs of the kind found in Frankfurt ; therefore, once colour reproductions of the photographs had been made, the Department's supplementary circular, which repeated the telex warning of 22 November, was issued by post in the second week of January to United Kingdom airports and airlines and to some foreign airlines, including Pan Am, which had already been informed by the United States Federal Aviation Authority on 18 November.
On 16 February, the investigators announced in Lockerbie that the bomb that caused the disaster had been contained in a radio cassette player packed in luggage--luggage which almost certainly did not originate from Heathrow--in the hold of the aircraft. On 17 February, the Department issued its aviation security circular 1/89 recommending procedures that airports and airlines should follow in the light of this information and of the possibility that other similar bombs might exist in Germany or elsewhere.
By telex on 20 March the Department reminded airports and airlines of the 17 February circular and re-emphasised the need to apply the procedures set out, as well as adding supplementary recommendations. I turn to the anonymous telephone call to the United States embassy in Helsinki on 5 December 1988. This telephone call warned of an attempt to sabotage a Pan American aircraft flying between Frankfurt and the United States within two weeks, which expired on 19 December. The caller did not mention London. Information about this telephone call was disseminated in an FAA bulletin addressed to United States airlines, which my Department received on 9 December.
My Department immediately had the information in the bulletin assessed in conjunction with appropriate United States authorities ; the conclusion was that the information therein had little credibility. My Department decided that for the moment no further measures were necessary in the light of the bulletin. Special security measures were already in force in respect of United States flights out of the United Kingdom.
In a written answer to a question in another place on 16 March, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate said that an inquiry by police officers involved in the Lockerbie investigation into the Helsinki "warning" had produced no evidence to indicate that the telephone call had any relevance to the Lockerbie disaster and the
Column 911investigation into it. The United States Government are of the same view. Testifying on behalf of the FAA to a United States Senate sub-committee on 14 March, Ambassador Clayton E. McManaway said : "By 10 December the Finnish police had determined that the threat' was a hoax. The US fully concurred in this judgement. In the wake of the Pan Am bombing this threat' was thoroughly reinvestigated by the Finns, the US and other concerned Governments. It is our unanimous conclusion that the Helsinki threat' was baseless."
In view of this, it is disgraceful that the hon. Member for Kingston-upon- Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has cruelly deceived the relatives of those who died by encouraging them to believe that this warning was genuine. [Interruption.]
Mr. Channon : In all of this we must not lose sight of the fact that what really matters is the apprehension of the terrorists who perpetrated this crime. It is my responsibility to ensure that our airports and airlines respond vigorously to the threat that now exists from international terrorism. It is a responsibility that I take extremely seriously and am determined to discharge.
Mr. Kinnock : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Transport for responding to my question and now making a statement. There are two issues that need to be addressed this afternoon. The first is the way in which the Department of Transport treated the bomb warnings that it received before the Lockerbie tragedy. The second is the way in which the Secretary of State has dealt with events since the tragedy.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that there were significant differences between the telex issued by his Department on 22 November and the letter dated 19 December? Does he accept, in particular, that there were at least three new and vital pieces of information in that 19 December letter that could have assisted in the detection of an explosive device in a radio cassette recorder?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept also that, whereas the memorandum of 22 November contained only a general warning about devices, the 19 December letter contained a quite specific assessment that other devices were in circulation? More than that, is it true that the information contained in the 19 December letter was available to the Secretary of State for the Home Department and international police authorities even before his memorandum of 22 November? If it is true, why did he not follow the course of action taken by authorities in other countries that received the information and send the full information to the airlines immediately? In any event, will the Secretary of State tell us exactly when the letter dated 19 December was posted? Why was it delayed at all and, when that letter was finally sent, why did it not go by the speediest means available?
I now turn, as the Secretary of State did, to the question of what has become known as the Helsinki warning. Why did the Secretary of State dismiss this warning as having little credibility? [Interruption.]
Column 912States authorities, made the connection between the Helsinki warning and earlier warnings and circulated it to airlines and airport aviation security personnel in FAA Bulletin 88/22? If those authorities did that, why did not the Secretary of State for Transport in Britain?
Will the Secretary of State also tell us why, on 10 January, when he made a statement to the House about the warnings that had been received, he referred only to the Helsinki warning and made no mention of the 22 November warning? Why, in that statement, did he disclose the warning that he said was unimportant, and yet make no mention of the warnings which, he now tells us, were critical? Turning to more recent events-- [Interruption.]
I shall turn to the most recent events, which have a strong bearing on affairs because it is clear that if any details exist of the identity of terrorist bombers, it would obviously be indefensibly irresponsible to report those details to anyone as it would seriously diminish the chances of catching those criminals.
Did the Secretary of State have a meeting last Wednesday with Ian Aitken, Julia Langdon, Robin Oakley and Chris Buckland? During the course of that meeting, did he use words that could reasonably be taken to mean that the authorities knew the identity and whereabouts of those suspected of committing this atrocity? He must tell us that. If the Secretary of State was not responsible for that story, what action has he taken to discover who was? What action will he take against newspapers which this morning attributed the briefing to him?
As everyone is convinced that everything humanly possible must be done to prevent another tragedy such as that at Lockerbie, will the Secretary of State give further consideration to an independent inquiry to provide further means of improving the procedures for combating the threat to airline safety posed by terrorism?
Mr. Channon : I shall deal specifically with all the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman in his supplementary questions. First, he asked me the differences between the November warning and the December supplementary circular, which he said was significant. The House will no doubt be interested to know exactly what the 22 November warning contained. It was sent by telex and contained the following vital information. It said that a device had been found in Germany linked to Palestinians. It said that it was a Toshiba radio cassette player and gave its model number and exact dimensions. It said that it contained two sorts of battery--and gave the dimension and voltage of the additional batteries. It gave the form, wrapping and weight of the explosive, the sort of detonator, and the two activating devices. It said that the radio would not work and could be armed by plugging in an antenna jack plug. That information was sufficient to enable specialists at Heathrow to build a mock-up of the device.
The telex urged recipients to inform security staff of the details. Apart from containing a photograph, the letter of 19 December added little. It added that there was more
Column 913wiring than normal but that this was not a significant indicator. It said that the batteries were not secured and that the jack plug might be taped to the side. The batteries, wiring and role of the jack plug had been referred to in the 22 November telex. Therefore, the House will be able to judge that the important warning-- [Interruption.] I do not want to duck any of the questions put by the right hon. Gentleman. He asked me when the photograph was sent out. As I said in my statement--which I am sure that he heard--the photograph was sent out in the second week of January--[ Hon. Members :-- "Why?"]-- because many of the people concerned with sending it out were at the time dealing with events after the Lockerbie disaster-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Channon : Let me turn to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, about the Helsinki warning. I have tried to explain to the House on a number of occasions--and I thought I had been fairly specific this afternoon--that the reason we gave no credence to the Helsinki warning was that it was not worthy of any. The American Government do not think it worthy of credence ; nor do the Finnish Government. The Lockerbie investigators are not following up any trails relating to that warning in their inquiry. The only person who seems, for some extraordinary reason, to be still pursuing it is the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East. [Interruption.] I must say to the Leader of the Opposition that the Helsinki warning is a red herring. I have never misled the House. We know that his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East is still on that old story, but I have already explained that the Lockerbie investigators gave it so little credence that they are not even following up a line of inquiry connected with it.
The right hon. Gentleman's next point concerned recent events. He asked me about my movements on Wednesday. I am not prepared to comment on meetings with individuals-- [Interruption.] --nor, I think, would any hon. Member in similar circumstances, but the interpretation by some people, most of whom are not present, of what I am alleged to have said last week has astonished me. At no time have I known--or, indeed, could I have known- -more about the progress of the investigation than was stated by the Lord Advocate last Friday. He is in charge of the investigation, and he knows all the facts. I know no more than he does, and I have nothing further to add on that point. [Interruption.]
Mr. Channon : Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked for an independent inquiry into the whole matter. I can think of nothing that would delay the progress of the general investigation of this terrible crime--a murder that killed more than 270--than to take people off that investigation to set up an independent inquiry. What we want to do is apprehend those who perpetrated this appalling act, and I should have thought and hoped that that was common ground on both sides of the House.
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : I thank my right hon. Friend for his very clear statement. Does he agree that the best way to reduce the anguish of the relatives of those who lost their lives in the Lockerbie disaster, both in the air and on the ground, and that of the townsfolk would be for the police to track down and arrest the murderers, and to know whether the bomb was placed on the aircraft in Frankfurt or in London? Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to assist the chief constable and the Lord Advocate to that end, and not be diverted by the Opposition's scurrilous call for an inquiry that would do nothing to help?
Mr. Channon : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who, after all, has played a very active and sad part in this tragic event, and I take his advice very seriously. That is certainly what the Government are determined to do.
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : Does the Secretary of State realise that many hon. Members recognise that this is a peculiarly difficult and delicate affair, and that that is why we on these Benches have not called for his resignation on each of the past few days? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate, however, that his answers today, especially about the information given to journalists last week, are unsatisfactory and will not retain the confidence of many people in the nation about his handling of the affair? Will he say clearly whether he or any member of his Department- -or, as far as he knows, any Member of the Government--gave journalists information that enabled them to publish articles last week about arrests or impending arrests that were subsequently described by the Lord Advocate as "wild, irresponsible speculation"?
Mr. Channon : I have reviewed in my mind many times all my conversations with anyone last week, and, in all honour, I must say that, to the best of my recollection, I have said no more than where we believe the bomb was put on the plane, how it was concealed and that the police were making brilliant progress. I know no more than what the Lord Advocate who is in charge of the criminal investigation has said.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Pan Am was fully briefed about the Frankfurt warning and the Helsinki warning well before the tragedy occurred? Will he confirm that Pan Am alone is responsible for checking the baggage, that Pan Am let the bomb on board and that there is not a shred of evidence that there was a breach of British security? Will he further confirm that his plans to protect the travelling public do not include the character assassination and gutter politics currently being used by the Opposition?
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : How can the Secretary of State possibly defend a delay of well over three weeks in sending out the circular on 19 December? Exactly when was the colour photograph of the terrorist device received in his Department? When others can wire photographs so quickly and effectively, why did it take so long to send that photograph to airlines
Column 915and airports? What possible confidence can the House have in an administration that was so dilatory in a matter involving life and death?
Mr. Channon : The right hon. Gentleman may not have fully considered what I said a few moments ago about the warning covering all the important points that went out on 22 November. I have read them out to the House, and I shall not waste time by repeating them, but the message sent by telex on 22 November contained all the vital information that was necessary and Heathrow acted upon it. Surely that is one of the acid tests. The December addition was a colour photograph, and a little more supplementary information was sent out with it.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley) : Will my right hon. Friend agree with a proposition that will command the support of the whole House, including the Leader of the Opposition, that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is as ruthlessly ambitious as he is deeply unpleasant?
Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan) rose--
Mr. Sillars : May I refer the Secretary of State to his very first statement to the House the day after the Lockerbie disaster? Is he aware that many people disbelieve a great deal of what he says because he allowed the House to believe that the accident might have been caused by structural failure when the prima facie evidence within his Department pointed to the possibility--it was no more than that at the time--of a terrorist act? Is it not the case that infomation has had to be dragged out of the Secretary of State? May I refer the right hon. Gentleman to his often-repeated statement this afternoon that he knows no more than the Lord Advocate? He was asked not whether he knows any more than the Lord Advocate, but whether he spoke to those journalists in a way that was fairly interpreted by the Daily Record.
Mr. Channon : I have debated the matter with the hon. Gentleman before, and he took a very reasonable line then. I am rather surprised by the first part of his question. He said that it was wrong to speculate on structural failure, but that was very much in people's minds at the time and it was extremely important that that matter should be disposed of and that people should not reach premature conclusions about whether the disaster was caused by a bomb or by structural failure. In one of his better remarks, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East said-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Channon : He said that it would be better if we withheld any speculation until the investigation was completed, and I agreed with that. It was some days before it became clear whether it was structural failure or a bomb and that became clear on 28 December.
Column 916On the second point, I have nothing to add to what I said earlier. I know no more about the progress of the investigation than that stated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. I cannot go further than that because I have nothing else to say. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question. We have a further statement, a ten-minute Bill and business under the guillotine. I shall allow two more questions from each side.
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside) : Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that his prime responsibility as Secretary of State for Transport is to do his best to ensure that tragedies such as Lockerbie do not occur again, first, by assisting the Lord Advocate in bringing the criminals to trial and justice and, secondly, by plugging all possible security loopholes in our civil aviation system? I hope that my right hon. Friend is reassured by the fact that Conservative Members have absolute faith in his ability and determination to achieve both objectives.
Mr. Channon : I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I agree that it is essential that we should have a continuing review of aviation security. We have taken a number of steps since Lockerbie.
Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston) : Is it true that the Secretary of State had to repudiate statements made by a Scottish Office Minister about the progress of the investigation? If so, was he referring to the Lord Advocate?
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) : Is it not abundantly clear that my right hon. Friend took every reasonable steps to alert the authorities at Heathrow to the type of threat that might occur and that-- using all the lavish hindsight that other hon. Members are prepared to use- -the only possible action that might have made a difference in those precise circumstances would have been an international agreement that baggage in transit at airports should be further re-examined?
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : I am appalled at the arrogance of the Secretary of State. As one of the few hon. Members who were here on 22 December to listen to his statement in the House, I recall that he did not disclose to the House or the nation the knowledge that he has talked about this afternoon. Why was it that on that occasion, when the whole nation was shocked by this tragedy, he was not honest enough to disclose all the facts that he disclosed subsequently?
Mr. Channon : With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that on reflection he will realise that that is an unfair remark. On 22 December, I told the House what I could. [Interruption.] I remember the hon. Gentleman being there ; it was one of the few pleasing features of the day.
I also reported to the House on 10 January. The important point is that on that day the cause of the accident had not been established, as I told the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) a few moments ago. That had to be established in the next few days. In such investigations, with delicate security considerations, the House of Commons must understand that if we wish to apprehend all the people involved it is essential that all of us exercise some restraint.
At approximately 1 pm yesterday afternoon Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the divisional commander of Armagh, together with Superintendent Bob Buchanan, the local border superintendent, left Armagh in Superintendent Buchanan's car to attend a meeting with their opposite numbers in the Garda Siochana in Dundalk. I understand that their meeting lasted about one hour and that they then left to return to Armagh.
At 3.55 pm the RUC received information that there were two people believed dead in a car on the Edenappa road south of Jonesborough in County Armagh. The car was located at 4.15 pm some 50 yards north of the border. This car was found to be Superintendent Buchanan's and the dead were identified as the Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan. The clearance operation was put in hand immediately, involving both RUC and Army and with full assistance from the Garda and the Irish Army. Because of the risk of possible devices, this operation is necessarily taking some time to complete. A full investigation is now under way into all the circumstances surrounding this outrage and in this connection I am grateful for the immediate and forthright assurance from the Taoiseach that every possible co-operation will be forthcoming to ensure that those responsible are apprehended and brought to justice.
Our immediate thoughts must be for the families, friends and serving colleagues of the two officers in extending our deepest sympathy to them in their tragic loss. Our duty to them now is to ensure that everything that can be done will be done to find the perpetrators of these murders, and that we take immediate account of any lessons that need to be drawn from this terrible event. Nor, sadly, Mr. Speaker, are these the only murders in Northern Ireland in recent days and weeks. Since the beginning of this year, 25 people in Northern Ireland have died as a result of terrorist violence. More than half of those were the victims of purely sectarian attacks.
Only yesterday I called on the whole community to give the fullest support to the RUC in its work to protect everybody from the evil sectarian killers from whichever extreme they might come. Everybody owes a great debt to the RUC and the security forces for their unstinting efforts and courage against the terrorists, and indeed for their successes this year in the number of people who have been arrested and charged with many of these murders and attempted murders.
At a time when the whole community depends so much on the RUC, the murder of two senior officers shows how vile and evil is the IRA's intent. That is why it needs to know that such a deliberate attack on the security co- operation between ourselves and the Irish Government will only make us more determined to make that co-operation all the more effective and to rid the island of Ireland of the evil of terrorism.
Column 919in South Armagh yesterday. The sympathies of myself and my hon. Friends go out to the families and friends of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan. Two more families have been bereaved, a price which unfortunately the families of the security forces may be asked to pay for the security of the rest of the community, and we should all remember that.
The murders yesterday follow a series of sectarian murders in the Province in the past month. The murders committed by the IRA and other paramilitary organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish People's Liberation Organisation have one thing in common : they reveal on the part of the perpetrators a total contempt for human rights, and the basic human right, the right to life. The killers are bent on destroying the possibility of peace in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that neither the people of Northern Ireland nor the vast majority of their elected representatives, nor members on both sides of this House will capitulate to them.
Yesterday's tragic murders have a particular significance, insofar as the victims were two men who have done much to make Northern Ireland a safer place. South Armagh is often described as bandit country. Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan were working in co- operation with the Garda Siochana to remove that unwanted label from that part of the Province.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that this work will not be abandoned? In fact, the tragic incidents yesterday underline even more the need for positive co-operation between the RUC and the Garda Siochana. I assure the Secretary of State that we share his view that it is the duty of everyone, particularly Members of this House, to co-operate with the security forces on both sides of the border to put a stop to the killing, and that any information they have should be given to the appropriate authority. I join him in welcoming the helpful statement made by the Taoiseach.
Finally, may I put a number of specific points to the Secretary of State. Will he give the House an indication of how security matters will now be conducted to ease the fears of people in all parts of Northern Ireland, but particularly in South Armagh and north Belfast, where there has been a particularly vile set of sectarian murders over the past few weeks?
The right hon. Gentleman may not be in a position to answer my two final points, as his statement seemed to indicate that the clearance operation is not complete, but there has been a degree of speculation. Will he indicate why the car and the incident were not observed from border observation posts, and secondly, in view of what has been reported in some papers, is he able to indicate to the House whether there were any documents of a security nature in the car which are missing?
Mr. King : I thank the hon. Member first of all for the very forthright statement he made on behalf of the Opposition and his right hon. and hon. Friends in their firm stand against terrorism and the evils that these murders represent. He is right to say that many live in fear in South Armagh, not just of the evil of the terrorist but of the gangster and the smuggler ; all the criminality there undoubtedly brings terror to many people.
The hon. Member is right to pay tribute to the work of those officers, and indeed those working with them, in
Column 920co-operation with the Garda Siochana, to try and lift the burden of fear which exists in that part of Ireland on both sides of the border. I am grateful to him for what he said on that, and I confirm to him that that work will certainly continue and be reinforced. In respect of the fears which exist, with this nasty and very vicious outbreak of sectarian killing, I had a meeting yesterday morning with the deputy Chief Constable. The RUC is taking a number of steps to ensure that its success in bringing a number of people to the courts is continued. We are certainly giving that aspect a very high priority indeed.
I am afraid that I cannot satisfy the hon. Member on his last points in respect of observation and documents. I have referred the incident to a full investigation and I would rather not comment further until more facts are available.