Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360
WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2002
360. One final point on the role of the local
authorities and the others. We have been told by the Association
of Chief Police Officers that they have been heavily involved
in re-writing this next chapter on the Strategic Defence Review,
updating it and writing this last chapter. Have local authorities
been encouraged to have an input into that new chapter about their
role in working with the military in coping with these problems
that could beset us?
(Brigadier Houghton) Both the police and the Home
Office have been part of the process so far, but I could not say
within the Home Office to quite what level that has gone down
to in terms of local authorities.
(Mr Bowen) I would add that part of the object of
the consultation process is to get the wider public involved,
local authorities of course.
361. I am sorry; I would not consider the local
authorities are the wider public. In this they are part of the
partnership, are they not, in delivering what Mr Hancock is trying
to get at in terms of response to emergency that could take place
in their area? I would have thought that it would have been important.
I know some people have said that they do not think local government
is very relevant but I would say that it is important to have
them involved in the early process.
(Mr Bowen) I do not know the answer to whether the
Home Office engage with them but we can find out.
362. Can I ask one final question? This goes
back to the answer you gave earlier, Brigadier, about the national
key points. We were told in a previous meeting that there were
X number of these national key points. What was not clear was
whether they have been added to or subtracted from, some sites
taken out to make way for new sites. You gave a firm assurance
that none had been taken out of that list, but did you say none
had been added? That is what I want to make sure of.
(Brigadier Houghton) My firm understanding is that
of the 160-plus that we have at the moment in terms of MoD key
points there has been no recent change in terms of additions or
Mr Hancock: That is interesting, because
the top level budget holders told us that they had received no
increase in expenditure to cover any future security needs and
that they would have to absorb any new locations from within their
existing budgets. Your assurance that none has been added or taken
out is okay for the time being. We need to probe that a bit more
Mr Cran: We have covered a number of
the issues that I want to raise but I want to raise them again
because I am rather unclear as to where you are all coming from.
You said, Mr Bowen, in your statement that this threat is not
new, it has been given added prominence and impetus by the events
of 11 September, much of what you have to describe pre-dates 11
September, so I get a very strong impression from you that you
really rather disagreed with Mr Hancock when he said to you that
11 September was a seminal event. You are giving us the impression
that it is all under control. Is that unfair or fair?
Mr Jones: It is the Simon Webb approach.
(Mr Bowen) We have had contingency plans in place
for a number of years, and I am really talking about counter-terrorism
now. Those plans took account of various scenarios which I do
not think we should go into in public but you may want to go into
in more detail in private. Those scenarios remain relevant and
indeed, although the nature of the threat may have taken a step
up in terms of scale, the kinds of scenarios that we are talking
about still relate to the kinds of plans that we have in place.
If we take the example before Christmas of the ship that was apprehended
in the Channel, that was not in accordance with a plan that was
in existence which specifically and directly met that scenario,
but none the less it could be quickly adapted to respond to it.
What we are saying is that the generic planning is right but it
needs to be revised and probably uplifted in some cases. What
I am saying is that this is not complacency but we could not be
criticised for not having done anything before. We did have plans
in place and we believe that they are still relevant. They need
to be revised and some of them have been revised. I am talking
about rogue civil aircraft in particular, which was an area where
we were not geared in the right direction and that needed a significant
amount of work. In general, in dealing with the kinds of threat
that we are talking about, I think we have the right plans in
place subject to revision and updating.
364. That is a very carefully crafted answer
without any question of doubt at all, but it does not really tell
me what I want to know, which is that if we go back to 11 September
and a similar thing had occurred in the City of London, would
your contingency plans and all the rest of it have done any better
than the Americans?
(Mr Bowen) I do not think they would have and that
is where we have been completely up-front and said that, dealing
with a rogue civilian aircraft, I do not think that was an area
where our plans were up to date.
Mr Cran: Can I get this right? I understand
about a rogue aircraft because that was probably not the first
but it was almost the first. How many other areas were you unprepared
for before 11 September, such as the rogue aircraft? You are talking
to me about scenarios, contingency plans which tell you where
the threats are. How many areas were we unprepared for before
365. Would you like to give some of that in
public and some in private or most in private or all in public?
(Mr Bowen) I think I will need to reflect too, if
I may, Mr Cran. I am not sure that there are as it were large
areas of complete absence of capability. I think that broadly
the span of terrorist activity that we have been aware of in terms
of tracking what has been going on around the world from intelligence
sources are areas where we have had to make plans and make preparations
in case they are directed towards us.
366. But you can understand the problem from
my point of view and perhaps from the Committee's point of view,
that we really are talking in extraordinary generality. I as a
member of the public, if I were listening to you, would say to
you that you are an exceedingly able civil servant, which I am
absolutely sure you are, you have got absolutely the right attitude
to the whole thing, but you are not telling me what I want to
know, which is, as a citizen, am I going to be protected against
suicide bombers, for instance? Does that come into your contingency
(Brigadier Houghton) I can perhaps help a little bit
here in as much as clearly work that had been done prior to 11
September and work that has been done since will never be able
to have a contingency that meets every conceivable scenario. It
would be quite impossible. What you can seek to have is capability
that, so long as there is intelligence, can be put into operation
in order to prevent a particular scenario or incident coming to
pass and then you can have capability which, if that is unsuccessful,
has the ability to manage the consequences of it. Clearly, within
the nature and range of threats which could be posed to the United
Kingdom, there are certain areas where only the military have
the sort of capability that can proactively deal with it. Examples
would be the defence of the integrity of the UK air space, to
a limited extent of the integrity of UK waters, and to an extent
in dealing with the CBRN range of incidents. In respect of the
one that you specifically make, suicide bombing, it is quite impossible
without accurate intelligence to defend every conceivable installation
from an attack unless there is some form of intelligence lead
that can prompt the right security and counter terrorism arrangements
to be put in place. What I would reassure you of is that there
is certainly no reckless complacency about the nature or the proficiency
of the military capability that is put in support of the civil
authority to deal with these sorts of contingencies.
367. But I did not suggest for a second that
there was any complacency. What I am trying to get at is that
you have an awful lot of "buts" and an awful lot of
"maybes" in that answer you have just given, with which
I have some sympathy. But what we have to be careful about in
this particular debate is that we do not on the one hand take
your answers, Mr Bowen, which were larded with reassurance and
so on, without putting them alongside your comments, Brigadier.
Moving on, I would just love to know what you mean by saying in
your statement that a great deal of work has been done to ensure
that the contingency plans already in place could withstand the
new challenge of terrorism on the scale witnessed on 11 September.
Could you just canter us through that? What have you done? What
is the work?
(Mr Bowen) The work has largely been done in the Cabinet
Office, with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the lead,
looking at resilience in the round, and they have set up three
groups that are taking forward this work to see whether we are
prepared and whether revisions need to be made. One of the groups
is focused on the resilience of London, another on UK resilience
more generally and a third in relation to the CBRN threat. That
is a rolling programme of work that is being done.
368. But we can be assured here, can we, that
if something unexpected happened tomorrow this rolling plan and
the contingencies and all the reviews and all the rest of it would
meet it? Is that what you are saying? Remember, it is quite a
commitment to give if you do say it.
(Mr Bowen) Indeed, and I hesitate to give it to you
as an absolute commitment because one never knows what is round
369. Is it not your business to anticipate what
is round the corner?
(Mr Bowen) Yes, it is, but I do not have second sight.
370. But it is your business to look ahead and
to say that 11 September was a seminal event; nothing now can
be ruled out. That is the mind set you should have, is it not?
(Mr Bowen) It is, absolutely.
371. You are not giving me the impression that
that is what is happening.
(Mr Bowen) You are asking me, Mr Cran, to give you
an absolute assurance that every single contingency is taken care
of. I cannot give you that because I do not have second sight.
What we can do is to say that we are applying ourselves both with
imagination (in the worst sense) of what might happen and in terms
of being informed by intelligence, intelligence meaning information
as to what those possible events could be. The object is to put
ourselves in a position to be able to deal with those. I would
give you absolutely as much reassurance as I can.
372. Let us tackle this from the other end for
two seconds. You are saying to me, with a proposition I understand
and to some extent support, that you cannot guard against everything.
I agree with that. You tell me what the official view of the Government
is, or whatever body you represent is, on where the boundaries
are. Tell me that one. You must have a view about that because
if you do not have a view about that you cannot reassure anybody
(Mr Bowen) I am not sure that I can give you what
those boundaries are at the moment.
373. I would have to say, Chairman, as one member
of this Committee, that I am rather unsatisfied that however many
months after the event we have not even reached a stage of saying
that we know where the boundaries are and that we could defend
the great British people from the sort of attacks that occurred
on 11 September. That is worrying.
(Mr Davenport) Can I say a couple of things on that?
It is one of the major functions of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat
which has been set up in the Cabinet Office to look ahead and,
in a process called "horizon scanning", to try and identify
as far as it is possible to do so possible future crises and contingencies
and what sort of attacks might be round the corner. That is one
of their prime functions, the "blue skies" approach
as it is sometimes called. Can I also say specifically on your
point about suicide bombers, as Brigadier Houghton says, that
it is extremely difficult to defend against each and every form
of suicide attack, but the work that we have done to develop a
more robust response to hijacked civilian airliners has been very
much with a suicide type of attack in mind, and to some extent
with the planning that we are doing on shipping also.
Mr Cran: I just leave you with the thoughts
Chairman: Mao, did you say?
374. Moi. I leave you with this thought.
You cannot tell us everything, of course not, because you made
quite clear in your memorandum that there are things which, if
made public, would simply help the other side, but I am suggesting
to you that the great British people sooner or later are going
to have enough of the Whitehall flannel and they are going to
need a great deal more detail than we are getting now. I suggest
to you that if we cannot get it in the Defence Committee of the
House of Commons who can? I leave that thought with you.
(Mr Bowen) I understand that, and I think the Ministry
of Defence is very much concerned about the public perceptions
and what people feel and what your constituents feel. That is
a point that has been made in this Committee before. That reassurance,
that understanding, that sense of things are being done, is very
important without any doubt at all.
Mr Cran: It is important but you have
not succeeded. I have to say as an individual in this country,
a not uninformed one, that you are not giving me the reassurance
that I am going to be defended against anything in particular.
All I am hearing from you is all the difficulties. The Brigadier
has spent a lot of time outlining them. I return to my point.
You are going to have to come out of your bomb shelter sooner
or later and say, "We can protect you against this, this
and that but we cannot protect you against the rest".
Chairman: I think we have flogged this
one to death.
Mr Cran: We have not.
Chairman: I am not certain that if we list publicly
those things which we cannot defend against that is going to be
to our advantage.
Mr Cran: I would love to have a private
session of this Committee. That at least would give some reassurance
Chairman: All right. Perhaps we will
have a private session. What time shall we have a private session?
Mr Cran: Keep going, Chairman, and you
will see if I am here.
375. Clearly Winston Churchill was not expecting
the sort of armed problems he had before the First World War and
that is why he had to turn out the Scots Guards to deal with them.
Once that had happened there was a contingency plan. With the
campaign of the Irish Republican Army the contingency planning
progressed as their campaign progressed. Therefore one was not
really expecting a mortar attack on No 10 Downing Street. It happened
and a contingency plan occurred. I have no doubt that there are
contingency plans for explosions against key points or other sites
inside the City and elsewhere. I am concerned though about your
ability to react to the scale of the events. I understand that
if something goes bang it does not really matter; you have a plan,
but is it big enough to deal with a big bang? For instance, the
day after aircraft crashed into the World Trade Centre as I understand
it the Americans had combat air patrol over their cities flown
by reservists. I find that remarkable but they did. We saw nothing
like that. Were the Americans over-reacting? Were we under-reacting?
Did we not have the resources to mount that sort of reassurance
and protection? Then the public hears that No 5 Squadron, which
is responsible for protecting the capital, is going to be disbanded.
I appreciate there is a lot of flannel involved in that report
but it is not at all reassuring.
(Mr Bowen) Just on reactions following 11 September,
actions were taken. There was an exclusion zone set up around
London, an air exclusion zone. Aircraft were diverted so that
they were not overflying the capital.
376. For three days?
(Mr Bowen) For a bit longer than that.
377. No, three days.
(Mr Bowen) Actions were taken but this was risk management.
These are decisions that have to be taken. Do you decide that
you will have no aircraft overflying London in perpetuity? Do
you decide that you assess the risk, you consider what the pros
and cons are and you decide to change back to a different kind
of state? There were reactions. There may not have been combat
air patrol flying over the UK. I do not think that there was no
reaction. There was reaction and indeed it was a properly assessed
response. I guess inevitably there was a difference between the
United States and New York, which was actually attacked, and we
who were possibly going to be attacked and we had to make an assessment
as to the likelihood of that and what we could do to defend ourselves.
Can I just hand over to Brigadier Houghton?
Chairman: Just before you come on to
that, we do have a section on defending against an air attack
which we can go into in more detail.
Mr Jones: The more I hear of what our
response to this is the more concerned I get, frankly, because
the Civil Contingency Secretariat frankly does not give me a great
deal of confidence and you are not giving me a great deal of confidence
today either. I compare two different approaches. I get the impression
that what we are doing is the usual, as I call it, Simon Webb
approach to things: stiff upper lip, "Everything is all right,
we know what we are doing in terms of various Civil Service committees
will sort this out; you do not need to worry". I am sorry,
but that is not going to wash, I do not think, sooner or later
with the public and it certainly will not wash with Mr Cran or
with me. I compare that with what we saw when we were last over
in Washington when we met one of Tom Ridge's deputies, where they
are looking at all these things, including air conditioning systems
on buildings for anthrax, tankers, a whole range of areas they
are looking atnot that they are going to solve every single
thing, and I appreciate the point that you are making about that;
I think that they are overdoing it and trying to give reassurances
about a 100 per cent risk-free world which I do not accept you
can do, but at least what they are doing very publicly is giving
reassurance that things are being looked at. You are not giving
that assurance at all and, to be honest, the other thing we are
up against here which is very concerning is the usual Whitehall
depart mentalism, "It is not my responsibility; it is somebody
else's responsibility". If that is not pulled together, if
something happens in this country, which may well happen and I
accept that you cannot guard against every risk and you have to
work on intelligencesomebody will start asking very clear
questions about why we have not been prepared, because six months
on to say that we are not really looking at certain areas I find
astonishing. We have got to do something sooner or later about
reassuring the public, otherwise questions will start being asked.
378. Can I just add a point there? I agree with
what you are saying, that we cannot cover every possible eventuality,
but can you give the Committee at least the comfort of knowing
that an appraisal is done whenever there is terrorist activity
throughout the world, that when there is an incident we actually
do an appraisal; for example, Japan, the Sarin attack, Israel,
the suicide bombing, the Yemen, the ship attack, Africa, the embassy
bombing, Florida, the anthrax attack. Do we take lessons from
each one of those incidents?
(Brigadier Houghton) Yes, we do. I take your point
about this interdepartmental pointing of fingers, but we have
a classic case here of the House of Commons Defence Committee
asking the right questions of the wrong people. This should be
being asked of the Home Office.
Mr Jones: I do not accept that at all.
379. They passed the buck to you. You must have
read the transcript, Brigadier. They passed the buck to you.
(Brigadier Houghton) I find from my dealings
with the Home Office on this range of issues is that there is
a significant amount of capacity within the civil sector to deal
with a whole range of these scenarios and the consequence and
management of them which would give me some reassurance, but I
am not the authoritative spokesman to say what they are. I think
it would be quite wrong for me to be so. What I can do is tell
you about are those enhancements and elements of the military
support that we give to the civil sector and the degree to which,
since 11 September, they have been enhanced and, depending on
the policy findings of the SDR extra chapter, may be further enhanced.
Since 11 September, for example, we have made significant enhancements
both in equipment terms and military manpower terms into the nationwide
coverage of explosive ordnance disposal. We have enhanced the
military component to the "render safe" procedure for
a CBRN device. We have, as you will hear in private session, developed
procedures to deal with rogue aircraft. We have enhanced the UK
radar coverage. We have had a run-out of the sea-based counter
terrorism operation. We have enhanced the security
6 The air exclusion zone was first imposed on the
afternoon of 11th September 2001. The restrictions were lifted
gradually over London, the last one being lifted at midnight on
15/16th September. Back
Ev 81. Back