Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1392 - 1399)




  1392. Gentlemen, I understand that a division is expected in the next few minutes, so we will have to temporarily suspend proceedings, hopefully not in mid sentence. At least it will give you a chance to re-group before you return. Welcome to this, the Committee's final session in our inquiry into the defence and security in the UK. This inquiry flows directly from the attacks of 11 September and the Committee will report probably by July. We did an earlier report which we published at the end of last year. It might appear rather strange that some of you are appearing before the Defence Committee but, although there are, I understand, 65 committees and sub-committees in the United States dealing with the events of September 11 and the aftermath, the figure in the UK is much smaller and you are attending that one this afternoon. It is also unusual for three Ministers to appear at one and the same time before a committee. Our inquiry has crossed many departmental boundaries and issues of co-ordination and co-operation have been central to it. We are very grateful to you for agreeing to come and present a truly cross-departmental approach (I will not say "question mark") to defence and security in the UK and I am sure you will all be speaking with one voice. I understand you will each be making short opening statements, at the end of which maybe we will be saved by a division and then we can start the questioning immediately upon our return. Mr Denham, please.

  (Mr Denham) Chairman, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the session. With my colleagues, Adam Ingram and Chris Leslie, I would like to explain briefly for the benefit of the Committee our arrangements for counter-terrorism and civil contingencies. I would like to introduce my official, Bob Whalley, who is Head of the unit in the Home Office which provides security policy advice to the Home Secretary and to Home Office Ministers. My colleagues will introduce their officials. The Home Secretary has lead responsibility within Government for counter-terrorist policy. His chairmanship of the Ministerial Committee on Terrorism and the Civil Contingencies Committee allows him to maintain a clear oversight of the issues and measures being taken to strengthen the UK's ability to respond to the terrorist threat. The Home Office's national counter-terrorist contingency plans are tried and tested. They have existed for many years and allow the UK to respond to a wide range of terrorist threats including those which might involve the threatened or actual use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials and new threats. The assessment of the terrorist threat is a continuous process and via DOP(IT)T which, as you probably know, Chairman, is the name of the relevant committee, the threat has been analysed and planning assumptions made for the prioritisation of protective and consequence planning across all departments. As a matter of sad necessity we in the UK have developed considerable expertise in fighting terrorism. We have learned to be prepared, to plan, to review and to take further action where required. Following the tragic events of 11 September, the Home Office, Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence have been at the heart of a major cross-departmental programme of work designed to enhance the resilience of the UK and counter the new indiscriminate threat of terrorism from abroad. I would like to emphasise that, although a great deal of effort has been expended within the UK since September 11, effective measures to respond to the threat of terrorism were already in place. The Government not only accepts but actively embraces the case for contingency planning and for conducting exercises to test those plans. For many years the Home Office's national counter-terrorist exercise programme has enabled police forces around the UK to test their response capability in conjunction with the military and other departments. Three full-scale operational exercises have been taking place each year. This is one of the main reasons why the UK's crisis management machinery works—and I believe works well—when we have had to deal with real terrorist incidents. I am not, Chairman, pretending that any of this makes the UK a risk-free zone. There can be no such thing. But it is right that we should keep things in context. Our priority now is to strengthen our response arrangements by identifying any gaps and weaknesses and by taking the necessary remedial action.

  1393. Thank you very much. Mr Leslie?
  (Mr Leslie) Mr Chairman, if I may take up the mantle on the points that Mr Denham has raised, I should for the record perhaps introduce myself and say how much I welcome the Select Committee's inquiry. I am Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office and, following the machinery of Government changes after the last general election and the establishment of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, I took on responsibilities for emergency planning activities. To my right is Dr John Fuller who is the Deputy Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and will be aiding and supporting me throughout the day. I also, following in particular September 11 and the constitution of the Civil Contingencies Cabinet Committee, chair one of its sub-committees on UK resilience. All I want to say in opening is that from what I have seen in work in this area so far the civil authorities in general have built up over decades a great deal of expertise, not only in anti-terrorism activities, but also in emergency planning in general. Our aim has to be of course to enhance preparedness, to build on partnerships with others which are so vital in this area and to really embed a concept of resilience into the mainstream of our work across all Government departments. As John has already said, we have to guard against both complacency on our part but also unrealistic expectations that are out there, but I do believe that we have raised our game significantly and we are testing our capabilities at all times and we do stand ready to cope with emergencies and disruptions whatever their source.

  1394. Thank you very much.
  (Mr Ingram) Chairman, you are familiar with me as the Minister for the Armed Forces. You know that I always welcome your inquiries. We always wait for the conclusions with some anticipation.

  1395. I am sorry about the last one, Minister. It did not go down too well in the MOD, did it?
  (Mr Ingram) We could spend the next two hours debating that one. I have with me Bruce Mann, who is the Director General for Financial Management within the MOD. The primary role of the armed forces is the defence of the United Kingdom against external threats. The Committee will be well aware of the work that is still being done by the armed forces to combat the threat from international terrorism at its source. Six months ago Afghanistan was a haven for Osama bin Laden and his network. There is still work to be done but along with our many allies we have made it plain that we have the will and the ability to ensure that there are no safe havens for him and his kind anywhere in the world. Of course there remains a risk of a terrorist attack in this country. I know my officials and those from other departments you have questioned have made it clear to you that the prime responsibility for combating this threat lies outside the MOD. That does not, of course, mean that the MOD contributes nothing. We fully recognise the importance of the task and our ability to provide specific specialist capabilities in the fight against terrorism in the UK. My Department has already given you a great deal of information on these capabilities, much of it classified, and further classified information can be provided, in writing, if you wish. The MOD contributes to a comprehensive response which combines the resources at the Government's disposal. The Government mechanisms, which are summarised by important phrases such as "the Home Office lead" and "police primacy", are both determined and able to combine resources—including those of the armed forces—to combat this threat.

Rachel Squire

  1396. I would like to pick up on where the last Minister to speak left off, namely with a couple of questions on military defence and how many of us have looked again at what ways the events of September 11 require us to look at how the armed forces fulfil their duty to defend the United Kingdom, in particular that it is when we are talking about the land mass of the United Kingdom it is largely limited to securing UK air space and UK waters. We recognise, obviously, far more clearly than we did how rogue civilian aircraft can potentially threaten UK air space and yet it seems that the last time additional home defence measures were taken was more than ten years ago during the Gulf War. Can I ask the Minister why similar measures to those that were taken then do not appear to have been taken in response to the attack of September 11 on the United States?
  (Mr Ingram) I interpret that question as meaning about point defence on sensitive sites. Would that be the direction you are coming from on this, or specifically in terms of what? I am not quite clear as to what you are seeking.

  1397. We are focusing specifically on the defence of the homeland when we are talking about this island territory of ours and how we are reacting to preventing aircraft that are just targeted to land and cause maximum death and damage.
  (Mr Ingram) So specifically on the aircraft?

  1398. How are we responding to that?
  (Mr Ingram) There is a general issue underlying that as well in relation to the last time we were in a conflict, although this is a different set of circumstances. The SDR came into play and of course that laid down new precepts, new concepts and a new focus on how we should be addressing our defence posture and taking that capability to where the threat lies, which we believe is beyond the shores of this country because we are not under direct attack in that sense. The SDR dealt with the generality of that and of course the new chapter to the SDR then looks at events post-11 September to make sure that we have got our posture right. It is not a new overall review but it is to make sure that the things that need to be done will be done based upon that examination and then upon that analysis and then best delivery of what is required. As to the air defence of the United Kingdom, I think you have had detailed information on this in confidence as to the mechanism by which this applies. It would be wrong for me to go into timings of response and again I think that possibly has been made available to you. The coverage of the United Kingdom we believe to be sufficient in terms of that air response but, having said that, that does not mean to say that we would not examine the basics of the aircraft in terms of response time because we have to look at where possible attack points could be. However, the use of aircraft must be the line of last defence because that is a point at which the threat is then going to impact. Our best option is to try and deter that from happening, either before, if it is a civilian aircraft, it takes off or, if it is in flight, knowledge which then gives us a better ability to deal with this before it comes into our territorial area. There are a number of mechanisms which can apply in the countries in which aircraft take off, in-flight if an awareness is made, and the alerts that can then happen to the possible country of attack before we then have to deploy in country if it is then directly threatening an immediate target within the UK. I do not know if that answers our question.

  1399. Yes, it does. I wondered if you wanted to make any further points on this occasion about issues we have certainly raised in this Committee previously about the Rapier air missile defence system that the US certainly seems to have considered very seriously following the 11 September as an additional way of securing air defence.
  (Mr Ingram) You are talking about ground defence. Again, I think this would be better dealt with—and I am not dodging the question—in private session because one then has to examine the nature of the sites, the location of the sites, and then what do you do? Is it one site, is it a multiplicity of sites? What do you do in terms of readiness and the utilisation of those resources? It is an easy response and a defined response but then a judgement has to be made: is it the best response in all circumstances? I have tried to define the way in which the threat should be tackled as far away from the shores as possible and then to have in place mechanisms which then specifically deal with that response covering the whole of the UK and not necessarily one specific site. Ground defence, by its very nature, would be likely to be located around one or more sites. That may not be the target.

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