Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.11 pm

Mr. Horam: I waive my right to reply in view of the immense frustration felt by my fellow Select Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George).

Madam Deputy Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates &c.) and Order [20 November 2000].

7 Mar 2002 : Column 491

7 Mar 2002 : Column 493


[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001-02, on the Threat from Terrorism, HC 348-I, and the Government's response thereto, HC 667; and The Ministry of Defence: Annual Report 2001, Cm 5109.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

5.12 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I very much welcome this short debate, which will be far shorter than I had expected. When the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and I decided who would go first, in the time-honoured way of tossing a coin, I had no idea that the Environmental Audit Committee would get almost three hours and the Defence Committee would get an hour and a half.

I am sorry to begin my speech on a sour note, but I certainly want to avoid any other Committee that spends a great deal of time producing a good report being pushed into a time corner because of some ridiculous procedures in the House. This place continues to baffle, bemuse and anger me. We have just listened to an important debate, but the time constraints on us are truly unfair given what we are now discussing, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's fine gesture in forgoing his winding-up speech.

I should certainly like to thank the Liaison Committee for agreeing to this snippet of a debate on the threat from terrorism. We in the Defence Committee have produced an excellent report, which deserves to be considered in a much longer debate. The events of 11 September shocked the world, and the effects of those atrocities were felt around the globe and will continue to resonate for years to come.

Al-Qaeda seemed to turn a new page in the long and bloody history of terrorism, presenting us with a new threat that is global in reach and ruthless in scale and horror. Its ambition and technology are unsophisticated, yet sophisticated; it is able to adapt to new circumstances, and I am not certain whether we will be able to adapt to new circumstances as effectively. As we say in our report, there is now a danger that a new benchmark in horror has been set.

In the course of our inquiry, we took evidence from a number of experts in the field; from the MOD, the Secretary of State and officials. We are grateful to them and to our advisers for their contribution. In my remarks, I will address two principal issues. The first is the nature of the new threat. In fact, is it new? How is it qualitatively different from those that we have faced in the past? Secondly, I want to look briefly at what steps we—and particularly the MOD and the Government—might take in response.

I see myself being ever more like Victor Meldrew as I go on, but, before I talk about the issues, I would like to comment on the Government's reply, which was excellent. However, we published our report on 18 December last year and we might have expected a

7 Mar 2002 : Column 494

reply by 15 February. In fact, the Defence Committee received the reply on the late afternoon of the day before yesterday. We published it this morning, before our Committee has had a chance to read it properly and, I presume, before hon. Members on both sides of the House would have read it. I ask the Minister, with due deference, to try to persuade his Department to produce responses in the time allotted and certainly to give the Government's response prior to a debate on the report, to allow hon. Members a chance to read it.

The threat is the substance of today's debate. The first question to be posed is how we face this new and qualitatively different threat from a new breed of terrorist. This is the question we ought to answer. The attacks of 11 September were not al-Qaeda's first terrorist outrage. There were several previously; in Saudi Arabia, at US embassies in east Africa and the attack on the USS Cole. Many people forget that there was a dummy run at the World Trade Centre by al-Qaeda in 1993, when a van packed with explosives was detonated in an underground car park—six people were killed and hundreds injured—in an attempt to topple one tower on to the other with massive casualties.

The events of 11 September stand out as unique in their appalling nature. Having examined all the previous attacks, our conclusion was that

We were concerned that it is not only al-Qaeda that is a threat; other terrorist organisations would try to exceed the carnage of 11 September.

The Committee pointed out the dangers from weapons of mass destruction, and we looked into this in detail. The Government's response was that there was a risk of such attacks on the UK, but that it "remains low". That may be so. It may be a low risk, but if there were an attack using weapons of mass destruction, God forbid, the consequences could be catastrophic. One only has to imagine what would happen if an aeroplane were crashed into Sellafield, or if a biological agent were released on the tube, or if a chemical tanker were blown up in an urban centre. The Committee has received evidence and information on each of those scenarios and others, and they were, frankly, terrifying.

The Committee and the Government need to think seriously about how we plan against such threats, which are deemed to be "low risk" but which, if they did occur, would have overwhelming and potentially catastrophic consequences. Such threats are the hallmark of asymmetric warfare. We need to prepare much better. To put it simply, in the past we have graded threats by combining an assessment of their potential severity with an assessment of their likelihood. We would expect to take action where a threat scored highly under each assessment.

Now, with new asymmetric threats—especially where they involve unconventional weapons such as chemical, biological or radiological weapons—they may not score highly in terms of likelihood, but that must not be used as an excuse for inaction.

The second theme is countering the threat. How can we do it? The threat seems to be amorphous and ill-defined and, even after the recent events in Afghanistan, we must not underestimate the continuing capabilities of those who would choose to attack us. The threat comes not just from

7 Mar 2002 : Column 495

al-Qaeda, which has a presence in 60 countries, but from other militant Islamic groups and states that sponsor terrorism. In addition, there may be other threats of which we are unaware. I do not want to be over-alarmist, but we have to think long and hard—indeed, short and hard—about the problem. The Americans do not underestimate the threat. It established an Office of Homeland Security and, as we all know, increased its defence budget by $48 billion for 2003, which puts the figures in our spring supplementary estimates into perspective.

The Government are working on a new chapter to the strategic defence review and will publish their findings, I presume in July or thereabouts. We hope that resources will match any new threats that emerge. The Select Committee is closely monitoring that and will report on it.

The Committee is examining the defence and security of the United Kingdom, which goes beyond its traditional scope. It is important to bring together the work of the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the intelligence services, the private sector and the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All those must be calibrated to produce an efficient response.

No doubt my colleagues will want to give their impressions of our major inquiry so far. I am not at liberty to disclose the details of the work that we have done on the substantive issues, but there is an urgency to it.

Resources are not an issue in the United States in its war against terrorism. We asked a senior official about that, who replied, with a shrug of his shoulders, "We're a rich country." We are not a poor country, and money must be spent. The protection of our citizens must be one of the first priorities—if not the first priority—of any Government. The spring supplementary estimates show that the Government have not shirked their responsibilities. Our report on the threat of terrorism demonstrates that the commitment must not be short term. That report, which we published in December, said:

Next Section

IndexHome Page