Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1500 - 1517)



  1500. So you do not think it should have been made public that we had procured this vaccine in the first place?
  (Mr Denham) I think there is a difficulty. Of course since then this has got wider political overtones which have nothing to do, I am confident, with the procurement process, so I do not want anything I say about wider public disclosure to get mixed up in that. I think it is generally not desirable to have too much detail about our state of preparedness for a whole range of different possible scenarios in the public domain. That is my view. The consequence of this coming into the public domain was that more is in the public domain than I personally would have thought was desirable, because I do not think any of us wants to—On any one issue it does not look too bad, but if you go through every single thing that you can imagine might happen and say in a practical way, "These are all our strengths and these are all our weaknesses", is that of great use to the public or someone else? We have to be very careful about our approach to these issues.

  1501. You could argue that it would be helpful to the British public in terms of reassurance, especially when they saw that the Americans a few months earlier had actually procured the vaccine. But you are saying you do not think it should be in the public domain at all?
  (Mr Denham) I think the difficulty is the one of the principle. On a specific issue I do not have particular problems, but over a range of issues the danger is of getting into a situation of revealing areas of vulnerability, revealing areas where we are mistaken in assumptions we have made, and that being in areas where we have to take this seriously because these are not lighthearted matters that we are dealing with.
  (Mr Ingram) Could I say that we have quite an intensive procurement activity in all of this. Sometimes when you decide to procure something it may not be readily available, so the public debate about seeking a particular mechanism or equipment, and then you get that time lag before it then comes into play, or exposing something. So to take the specific, I would ask the Committee then to think of the generality of the debate. On that they want everything. If not, where would the Committee draw the line on non-disclosure?

  Mr Jones: In this case it was actually freely available from more than one source.

Mr Howarth

  1502. There is some legitimate concern here, apart from the wider political issues, about the procurement process. We understand the need for national security and the need for you not to divulge information which will be sensitive and of value to an enemy. That is quite clear. The Americans, in seeking a vaccine, made it public that they were seeking a vaccine. You made it public that you were seeking a vaccine to protect the United Kingdom's citizens. They went to an open tender process. Apparently, according to Dr Troop, five companies were approached here. The British company which is supplying the United States did not get the contract. The public was told that a British company called PowderJect was going to get the contract. Subsequently it turned out that PowderJect were merely the middle man, and that the company which would be manufacturing the vaccine was a German company or a company based in Germany with a Danish parent called Bavarian Nordic. We were not told that. Furthermore, I have a press release here from Bavarian Nordic dated 11 April which says that they are entering into a 17.6 million euro strategic vaccine delivery collaboration with PowderJect. I work that out at about £10 million. You will know the stories that you are paying—the taxpayer, correction, is paying—something like £30 million for this, for a vaccine which is costing 18 million euros or £10 million to deliver to PowderJect. These are legitimate questions of public concern. Why have the Americans felt able to go to an open process, when they are much more sensitive about their vulnerability to terrorism than we are, because we have lived with it for longer than they have, yet we are not prepared to engage in that same open process?
  (Mr Denham) I think we need to distinguish between two separate issues, Chairman. One is revealing information about our state of preparedness or the assumptions we are making about what we should in fact be prepared for, and the issue which applies across a whole range of government business about the procurement of any particular thing or the way in which any particular contract is run. I do not feel able, for the reasons I have said, to give details of the procurement process in this case, although I understand that the Department of Health felt there were sound reasons given for what needed to be procured, the world position in the market and whatever.

  1503. It was for national security reasons. That was the reason they gave.
  (Mr Denham) That is something that you would need to pursue with the Department of Health. I do not really feel that I can do that, for reasons that I have given already. You will have heard from the Department of Health about that. I do not think it is for me to pass judgement on the ways in which the United States is handling these issues. I would say to the Committee that we have 30 years' experience in this country of dealing with terrorism from different routes and different origins. Over that period of time, yes, there have been failures, but there have been many successes. That has been within a context where reasonable security has been taken about what we think we are protecting against, whom we think we are protecting against, how we think we are going to protect against it. My belief is that that has served us and the wider public well, and I would be very cautious about changing the quotas that have been developed over many years.

Mr Howarth

  1504. We understand that, Minister, but are you suggesting to us that we are not entitled to ask questions about matters which are in the public domain? It is in the public domain that Her Majesty's Government is securing some vaccine, although we do not know exactly how much, in order to provide some protection for the people of this country. It is in the public domain who got the contract and it turns out actually when some journalists did some delving that it was not a British company that was making it, it was a Danish company based in Germany.
  (Mr Denham) I think this Committee, or another Committee of the House or whatever, as in any area of procurement over which questions are being raised, is entitled to ask questions, it is one of the privileges of Select Committees. I have to say though that if you want to talk about the detailed role of Ministers in this process you or another Committee should talk to the Ministers who were involved in that process.

  1505. If we could move on to the question of the military assistance to the civil authorities. At the moment military assistance to the civil authorities is provided only when it is available. It cannot be relied on or included in emergency planning. What would be the effects on military deployments and planning of guaranteeing the availability of, let us say, perhaps a battalion in each region with a response time of, say, four to eight hours?
  (Mr Ingram) I gave an indication in an earlier answer that this is one of the areas that we are looking at. I do not want to set out in detail the final conclusions as to how best we can deliver on that mission or request from whichever source it comes from in terms of civil aid. We are at the point of conclusion of an examination of this, it is not far away from the direction that you are coming from, Mr Howarth. I would love to be able to say today "yes, here is the answer" but we have not yet precisely defined what we intend to do. That is coming to a conclusion. I hope it is published in advance of your final report because it could then assist you in seeing whether we have met your thought processes on this. There is a consistency in direction on this in seeking to deliver on that area.

  1506. We recognise that our forces are heavily committed.
  (Mr Ingram) It is nothing to do with that.

  1507. You are saying that you are looking actively at the idea of specifically tasking certain units, perhaps on a regional basis, but you have not fully refined your thoughts on it yet?
  (Mr Ingram) Remembering a key element in terms of the review of the SDR The New Chapter approach relates to the TA and the Reserves and then to look at the combination of what can be played in best to meet that type of immediate demand. I would love to be able to announce it today because we could get a headline out of it but I think this shows that we are not chasing that type of approach. This is a serious point that I am making. We have got to be careful, we have got to make sure that what we are going to do actually delivers to meet that need. It will happen soon but I cannot give you a precise date.

  1508. But you recognise the problem, which is the emergency services find it difficult to call upon the armed forces, specifically the Army, quite simply because they cannot guarantee to be available, so you are working on the idea that they might be able to guarantee some availability?
  (Mr Ingram) If there is a shortfall, and I think there is an indication from a variety of sources that there is a need for additional immediate response activity across the whole of the UK, then we have got to seek to meet that. How precisely we do that is still to be fully clarified. I have got to say this view that somehow or other the Army should be ready for any eventuality is simply not possible. It is not just a case of deployment overseas, it is a case of availability in terms of immediate response. What I can say, going back to the ground truth debate, is when the Army is called upon it delivers. We could go through a range of recent events where it did deliver. The emergency services should not just say "if this is something we cannot deliver they can call on the Army". We have got to get better co-ordination and understanding on that point.

  1509. Are you looking at Reserves to perform this role more than the regular forces?
  (Mr Ingram) I have said what I have said.

  1510. Okay. Can I ask you one final question. Have any military units other than Air Defence Squadrons been given any contingency tasking since 11 September?
  (Mr Ingram) Yes.

  1511. Are you in a position to elaborate?
  (Mr Ingram) I will send you a note on that.

  1512. I think it would be helpful. You have been helpful about the air squadrons and their role and I think it would be quite helpful to know what additional tasking has been given.
  (Mr Ingram) We are into classified territory again because explaining our state of readiness is what people want to know.

Mr Roy

  1513. My questions are on public information, Minister. Does the public have a right to know what they are threatened by and what the Government is doing to protect them? Could you expand on where you draw the line between information and causing a panic?
  (Mr Denham) It is a difficult balance that we have to try and strike correctly all the time. You want to ensure that there is a proper state of preparedness or alertness in the public. You do not want to either do things that could unnecessarily alarm people for no great purpose and you certainly do not want to provide information if there is a specific question of threat which would directly inform a potential attacker either that we knew what they were up to or, indeed, by giving the wrong information that we had no idea what they were up to. What we have developed over the experience of terrorism over the last 30 years is, in a sense, a graded response. We are all familiar with the times when there may be a greater reassurance presence on the streets or there may be more information available to the public about watching out for suspicious packages if we are seen to be in the middle of a bombing campaign, so I think there is a constant adjustment of the information which is available to the public which complements the more targeted information which is available to certain key organisations in both the public and the private sectors.
  (Mr Leslie) If you look at the wide array of possible circumstances where the public may need to have information about particular incidents or similar situations there are a number of different responses that the public sector, the Government, can make to those. Locally, of course, the police and emergency services have the capacity to inform particular neighbourhoods in particular situations. At the other end of the spectrum we have national warning systems that are also available to come into play. I recently attended a seminar with the catchy title "National Steering Committee on Warning and Informing the Public", so there are a number of bodies and experts focusing on these issues and also looking at new communications technologies as well as they develop.

  1514. At least the title is better than the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
  (Mr Ingram) At least you understood it.

  1515. If you do not disclose the security measures that you have taken against chemical and biological attack, how can your actions be held accountable on behalf of the public?
  (Mr Denham) In a sense we are all accountable. The Home Secretary can be questioned by Parliament, Committees like this can question Ministers both in public and in private session where we can reveal extra information, we give classified information to the Committee, and through that to the House. I acknowledge the dilemma that you put forward and if things go badly wrong no doubt we will be held accountable for the consequences of that. It is not really possible to crawl publicly over everything that is done, as it were, and also maintain a reasonable degree of security. I think an inquiry like this one is actually welcome because your ability to operate both in public and in more confidential session does enable you to have an informed independent view of what we are doing which I am sure will help shape the way things are done in the future.

Mr Cran

  1516. I have two questions on another aspect of this, but before that I have two following up Mr Roy's question. You see, the problem is, you have given absolutely the right answer, in the sense that if I were in your position, on the public's right to know, I would have said precisely the same as you, because that is the prisoner of the position you are in. However, it all falls down when it comes to the particular. For instance, it just happened that I, like a lot of other people, flew into Washington on 10 September. It would not have been unusual for my wife and myself to go into an airport hotel, pick up a flight from Washington and take a domestic flight in the United States. I would have liked to have been told what was going on, and information was available—I am not suggesting directly to the British authorities, but it certainly seems to have been available to the American authorities. I have absolutely no confidence, from the way that the Government is structured, that I could get that information. Disabuse me of that.
  (Mr Denham) Let me again draw the distinction based on what we have done previously. If in the past, when we have had public terrorist attacks, there has been specific information sufficient to justify warning the public of the location, the time to clear an area or whatever, the system has, I think, generally worked well to do that, to get the relevant message across. If intelligence were to suggest that a bomb might go off somewhere associated with the same source, but we do not know where, it is not so clear that it is useful to say then, "We think a bomb will go off", although, as I said earlier, there is a graded response which does enable the level of messages about looking out for suspicious packages and so on to be raised. I think the question really is the one of grading the quality of the information according to the confidence that people feel they have in it. That does put a responsibility on the security services and others who are responsible for advising ministers on how good the information is and then for the rest of the system to act accordingly, but the system, I think, is designed to do that.

  1517. Who takes the decision? Let us assume that there is such an eventuality. The public may be told or may not. Who takes the decision that they may or may not be told?
  (Mr Denham) In practice you probably need to draw a distinction between something that is going to happen in ten minutes' time and something over a period of time, but if there were strong indications of a terrorist incident being predicted, then the COBR mechanism would come into place. It would bring officials together, and officials are effectively on a standing instruction to bring in ministers and to consult with the appropriate ministers if there is anything which involves issues which are sensitive. Clearly, judgements about what to communicate to the public can fall into that category. So essentially it would be a process that came through the system of ministerial accountability, with the Home Secretary at the apex of that, which would actually work.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you so very much, that was very interesting. As you have given us an invitation to come back with further questions, I promise you we will avail ourselves of that invitation. Adam will tell me now what he was going to tell me about Bowman! Thank you so much.

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