Select Committee on Defence Sixth Report


  1. We published our report on the Threat from Terrorism (the Threat from Terrorism) on 18 December 2001. In the introduction we stated—
  2. In this report we attempt to examine how, as a consequence [of the terrorist attacks of 11 September], our understanding of the threat to UK security and defence interests has changed. We look at how the implications of those events are being addressed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and our Armed Forces, and we reach some preliminary conclusions. We will examine some of the issues raised in this report in more detail in our forthcoming inquiry into Defence and Security in the UK following the 11 September terrorist attacks.[2]

    This is our report on the Defence and Security of the UK. It has been the product of a long and wide-ranging inquiry. It has included consideration of a range of threats—including chemical, biological and radiological—beyond those demonstrated on 11 September. It has led us into areas which are not the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence.

  3. It is now ten months since the attacks of 11 September. For much of that time we have been monitoring how the Government, and other responsible agencies and organisations, have been taking forward and implementing their responses to those terrible attacks. That process is far from complete. Therefore this is—in many respects—a report on work in progress.

  5. The Threat from Terrorism was in a sense the first stage of this inquiry. In it we sought to define the nature of the threat which we face post-11 September. It is only when such a definition, or characterisation as we termed it, has been made that we can sensibly examine how we defend and secure ourselves against it. Our report concluded that there has been a qualitative change in the threat from terrorism, that 'a threshold has been crossed in terms of scale and level of casualties'.[3]
  6. 11 September, however, changed our perceptions as much as it changed the reality. It was not the first time terrorists had tried to destroy the World Trade Center. It was not al Qaeda's first attempt to inflict mass casualties on an American target. It was not even the first time terrorists had attempted to use civilian aircraft as a weapon.
  7. Nonetheless the atrocities of 11 September did act, at the very least, as a 'wake-up call'. And that wake-up has led to a string of actions being undertaken across government. The MoD set about producing a new chapter to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). We discussed the earlier stages of that work in the Threat from Terrorism. A public discussion paper was published in February,[4] to which over 300 responses were received.[5] A further paper on the role of the reserves in home defence and security was published in mid-June. A White Paper is expected to be published shortly.[6] We plan to examine the whole of the MoD's new chapter work in a separate inquiry in the autumn.
  8. Within central government there has been a major cross departmental programme of work designed to enhance the resilience of the UK. This work has been overseen by two Cabinet Committees: the Ministerial Group on Preventive and Protective Security (known as DOP(IT)(T)), and the Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC). DOP (IT)(T) is responsible for determining policy for preventive and precautionary security measures to counter the threat of terrorism. The CCC has responsibility for work on planning for, dealing with, and learning lessons from emergencies and disasters including those caused by terrorists. Each Committee is supported by a Cabinet Office secretariat. A range of official committees and ad hoc sub groups on issues such as civil aviation security standards, security at ports, terrorist financing and the protection of key sites feed into DOP(IT)(T). The structures underpinning the CCC are described below (paragraph 132).[7]
  9. In the event of a major emergency, the national crisis centre would be the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR), from which the central government response would be co-ordinated. COBR is responsible for determining the Government's overall political strategy towards any specific terrorist incident.[8] It was convened on 11/12 September 2001 and again on 20/21 December in response to the MV Nisha incident (see paragraph 56 below).[9]
  10. One of the most immediate products of the programme of cross-departmental work was legislation in the form of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. That legislation covered a number of different issues, including aviation security, financing of terrorism activities, biological and chemical weapons, data-sharing, as well as asylum and immigration. Additionally a wide range of measures were taken internationally from the establishment of a counter-terrorism committee in the UN to accelerated agreement on new security measures in the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Across Government, the emergency services, and large parts of the private sector existing arrangements have been questioned and reviewed.
  11. But these actions, like the attacks of 11 September themselves, must be seen in their historic context. In the Threat from Terrorism we discussed the record of the original SDR in this area, and particularly how some of our predecessor Committee's criticisms of it had been borne out by events. We do not intend to go over that ground again here. On domestic terrorism, as a number of our witnesses emphasised, the United Kingdom has had thirty years of experience arising from the troubles in Northern Ireland. We were assured by Mr John Denham MP, the Minister of State for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (the Minister of State, Home Office)—
  12. 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 ... As a matter of sad necessity we in the UK have developed considerable expertise in fighting terrorism.[10]

    In respect of the UK's level of preparedness against major emergencies more generally, he went on—

    We have, in addition, experienced in recent years a number of other major emergencies. The severe flooding in the autumn and winter of 2000 were the principal factors behind the Deputy Prime Minister's decision to launch a review of emergency planning arrangements in England and Wales.[11]

    And it was those events, together with the experience of the millennium period and the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 which led the Prime Minister 'to the conclusion that he wished to see better arrangements for making sure that government itself was resilient to the handling of crises'[12] and therefore to create the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) after the June 2001 General Election. We discuss the role of the CCS below.

  13. So, the Government argues, the attacks of 11 September may have been unprecedented in scale; they may have demonstrated new levels of ruthlessness and of sophistication in their planning and execution, but, in the UK at least, many of the lessons of those attacks had already been learnt. What must now be considered are ways in which existing preparations can be improved, can be better tailored to the new understanding of the terrorist threat.
  14. The first step in such an approach should logically be to assess just how the terrorist threat has changed. This is what we attempted in the Threat from Terrorism. The Government has not published its own similar assessment. Therefore we have tried to deduce its views from public statements and from the action it has taken. We have tried to find evidence that the assessment is consistent across the different parts of government and other agencies directly involved.
  15. When Parliament was recalled on 14 September the Prime Minister stated—
  16. ...whatever the nature of the immediate response to these terrible events in America, we need to rethink dramatically the scale and nature of the action that the world takes to combat terrorism.[13]

    The Home Secretary, introducing the Second Reading of the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill said—

    ... the threat has increased dramatically. That is not merely because people acted as suicide bombers, flying planes into the World Trade Center, but because they have openly declared that it is open season on all of us. They want to destroy our lives, our liberty, our values and our way of life.[14]

    A central provision of that Act provides for the detention of suspected terrorists who cannot be prosecuted in this country for lack of admissible evidence and who cannot be removed (or extradited) to another country without breaching Article 3 (prohibition of torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights. That provision relies on a derogation from Article 5 of the Convention which can only be made 'in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation'. The MoD in its public discussion paper on the New Chapter to the SDR states that 11 September demonstrated 'the emergence of asymmetric action as having the potential for strategic change'.[15] And British Armed Forces have been deployed in Afghanistan in their largest combat operation since the Gulf War.

  17. On the other hand, the Head of the CCS told us that 11 September had—
  18. ...focussed minds... across the public and private sector on what organisations should do to protect their businesses and, perhaps more importantly, protect the public. So September 11 has had a fundamental change in that respect. It has not changed, I think, the way we are approaching building the work of the Secretariat in the longer term, that I think continues. To an extent it has proved one of our major assumptions which is that we live in a very complex society now.[16]

    The Minister of State, Home Office, told us that 'effective measures to respond to threat of terrorism were already in place'[17] and that 'the arrangements that we have at the moment do seem to me to be, certainly in terms of the way they are structured and the way they inter-relate, both robust and flexible'.[18] There has been no request for the Armed Forces to provide any reinforcement to the civil power—unlike during the Gulf war.[19] The Minister of State for the Armed Forces described 11 September as a 'trigger' and explained—

    Triggers can bring about a re-examination but of itself that does not mean to say that everything that was there was flawed. It just may mean that we need to do something better and more focussed.[20]

  19. Thus, although the Government may have described the new threat as being of a radically different scale to anything we have faced before, even threatening our way of life, its response has been to 'put in place ... a range of enhancements ... building on that which is already there. They are not new capabilities; they are enhancements to existing capabilities, more extensive coverage and so on.'[21]
  20. We contrast this approach with the assessment of Assistant Commissioner David Veness, Head of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch that 'it is difficult to over-estimate the scale of the challenge ... or what we need to do on a whole raft of issues'.[22] He went on to pose the following questions—
  21. Put bluntly are the arrangements that are the results of 30 years experience of combatting terrorism on a different scale ... fit for purpose for these new dimensions of activity? For example, do they defend against the suicide bomb? Do they defend against a simultaneous attack delivered with great ruthlessness on a particular day?[23]

    He drew particular attention to the difficulties in finding ways to deal with suicide terrorists.[24] He was also concerned that as time passed there was 'a real danger' of complacency setting in and that people would 'lose an understanding of what has happened'.[25] We share this concern. We have found evidence of it during this enquiry.

    The Armed Forces and Home Defence

  22. One of the principal responsibilities of any Government and the first duty of the Armed Forces is the defence of the realm. Under its new Public Service Agreement, announced with the Public Spending Review on 15 July 2002, the MoD's aim is to—
  23. Deliver security for the people of the United Kingdom and the Overseas Territories, by defending them, including against terrorism, and act as a force for good by strengthening international peace and security."[26]

    During the Cold War it was clear that defence meant defence against the Soviet threat. At the end of the Cold War the Government reviewed future structures and levels for the Armed Forces under the title Options for Change.

  24. The 1991 White Paper, Britain's Army for the 90s, contained detailed decisions on the future structure of the Army. It stated—
  25. The direct defence of the United Kingdom will remain a key role for the Army. In the event of war it would involve Regular infantry battalions with appropriate engineer, signals and aviation support. Given the diminishing risks of war in Europe and the reduced land threat to the United Kingdom itself, there will be less need to allocate Regular infantry to this role in future. But there will continue to be an important role for armoured reconnaissance regiments, infantry battalions and supporting units of the TA.[27]

    The Government assessed that, in practice, this would mean that 'five of the 21 regular battalions previously committed to military home defence can be replaced by the Territorial Army'.[28]

    The Strategic Defence Review

  26.  Following the General Election in 1997 the Government embarked on the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) 'to reassess Britain's security interests and defence needs and consider how the roles, missions and capabilities of our Armed Forces should be adjusted to meet the new strategic realities'.[29] The first of these new strategic realities was that 'there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe'.[30] Instead there were a range of instabilities, both in Europe (eg the Balkans) and further afield. The SDR also identified a range of new risks 'which threaten our security by attacking our way of life'.[31] These included 'new and horrifying forms of terrorism'. The SDR led to an emphasis on 'going to the crisis rather than [having] the crisis come to us'[32] and the development of a rapidly deployable expeditionary capability epitomised by the Joint Rapid Reaction Force. It concluded—
  27. The security and defence of the UK ... [rests] on the UK's membership of NATO and our willingness and ability to participate in operations and tasks abroad with partner countries in mutual self-defence.[33]

  28.  The tasks of the Armed Forces under the SDR are set out under eight over-arching defence missions. Three of these missions are relevant to the Armed Forces' role in national (as in UK mainland) defence and security. Firstly, there are roles which the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, fulfil in support of the civil authority and with which we have become familiar in times of flood or other emergency (notably the foot and mouth outbreak). These are termed Military Assistance to the Civil Authority (MACA). We discuss MACA in more detail below (paragraph 215). Assistance under MACA—which is in a supporting capacity only and is subject to availability—is provided under the Peacetime Security mission. Secondly there is the Strategic Attack on NATO mission—and of this the SDR states—
  29. No threat on this scale is in prospect ... This Mission therefore provides for longer term insurance through a credible nuclear deterrent and the retention of the essential military capabilities on which we could rebuild larger forces over a long period, if circumstances were radically to worsen.

    Thirdly military home defence appears in the SDR but only as a military task under the Regional Conflict inside the NATO Area mission. Its sole mention is in an annex to the Future Military Capabilities supporting essay, which states—

    The Government has an obligation to ensure the provision of critical services and the functioning of government itself during times of crisis and conflict. This is achieved primarily by the protection of critical installations and information systems.[34]

    No forces are specifically committed to this task.

    SDR New Chapter

  30. Following the attacks of 11 September, the Secretary of State announced that the MoD would look again at its defence posture and plans 'to ensure that we have the right concepts, the right forces and the right capabilities to meet the additional challenges we face from international terrorism and asymmetric threats.'[35] We examined the early stages of this work in the Threat from Terrorism and offered some preliminary responses to a series of questions posed by the Secretary of State. We concluded that the scope of the work would seem to require 'a more fundamental reappraisal of the SDR than is implied by the phrase "a new chapter".'[36]
  31. In its response the Government stated—
  32. The Government has no plans to conduct a new defence review. The Strategic Defence Review left us well placed to meet the additional challenges we face from international terrorism, conducted on a scale similar to the 11 September threats. We need to keep a sense of proportion: but, while not everything needs to change, the Government is not complacent and is undertaking additional work to ensure that we have the right concepts, forces and capabilities. The aim is to build on SDR assumptions and on the broad direction that the SDR took. The New Chapter is about ensuring that our Armed Forces have all the tools they need to do the jobs they might be asked to do in future to prevent, tackle and defend against the threat from international terrorism and a range of other possible scenarios.[37]

  33. In February 2002 the MoD published a public discussion paper on the new chapter to the SDR. In that paper the MoD distinguishes between actions to address the symptoms of terrorism and efforts to address the causes. Actions to address the symptoms of terrorism are listed under the headings of coerce, disrupt and destroy. What they have in common is that each attempts by pre-emptive action to prevent an attack being launched.
  34.  Actions to address the causes of terrorism come in two parts. Firstly there are efforts to prevent the conditions which allow international terrorist organisations to develop. These include peace support operations in fragile states or regions and assistance with building up the capacity of states to act against international terrorists in their own country. Secondly there are steps that can be taken to 'deter would-be attackers by making sure that international terrorist groups and those that actively sponsor or harbour them, are aware of our capability, readiness and willingness to act against them.'[38] This also includes efforts to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and devices.
  35. What these actions all have common, whether they are to address the causes or the symptoms, is that they would be taken overseas. In other words the principal role of the Armed Forces is clearly still seen as being 'to participate in operations and tasks abroad'. By contrast 'whatever its source, terrorist activity within the UK is criminal activity. The operational lead rests, in most cases, with the police'.[39]
  36. Thus over the years since the end of the Cold War, there has been a significant shift in the Government's interpretation of how the Armed Forces should discharge their fundamental responsibility for the defence of the realm. This has occurred in response both to the changing nature of the military threat to the UK and to developments in the understanding of where the UK's Armed Forces could most effectively make a contribution.
  37. On 12 June the MoD published a second discussion document: A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review: The Role of the Reserves in Home Defence and Security. We discuss the proposals in that document later in this report. In setting the context for its proposals, the MoD states—
  38. A key issue is how to strike the right balance between the defence role in helping to protect the UK, and contributing to operations against international terrorism and other asymmetric threats overseas.[40]

    The fact that the proposals relate primarily to a new role for the Reserves may indicate how the MoD intends to strike that balance.

  39. MoD Ministers have publicly stated that the international response to the attacks of 11 September has been a validation of the SDR. The discussion document published in February asserted that the SDR had 'achieved a great deal, and many of the measures that it implemented have helped us in the actions we have taken since 11 September.'[41] Nonetheless it also stated that while 'the SDR recognises the existence of potential assymmetric threats, it is fair to say that it did not treat such threats as a strategic risk ... It was the emergence of asymmetric action as having the potential for strategic change that has prompted the work we are now undertaking.'[42] That work has largely focussed on identifying new or revised roles for existing capabilities.[43] In other words, 11 September may have pointed to the need for enhancing existing provision in certain areas, but it has not led to any fundamental re-evaluation of the principles underpinning the SDR or the roles and responsibilities which the SDR gave the Armed Forces.
  40. Our Approach

  41. In this inquiry we have taken a different approach. In our earlier report we sought to characterise the threat posed by international terrorism. In this inquiry we have examined how the UK is placed to respond. We have tried to identify where there might be gaps, and where we have found them, we have asked how might they be filled. Where these are gaps in our defences against an outside threat, we have also asked whether the Armed Forces should have a role in filling them. In summary, whereas the MoD seem to be saying "these are the capabilities which the Armed Forces have, how can they be used?" we are saying, "these are the gaps in our defence, how can we fill them?"
  42. We have taken evidence from a wide range of witnesses, including Ministers from three different government departments, officials from the MoD, the CCS and Transec, representatives of the three emergency services and of local authorities as well as emergency planners and people responsible for security in the aviation industry and the private sector more broadly. We are grateful to them and to those who have provided written evidence for their contributions to this inquiry.[44] Some of that evidence has been classified. Where that is the case the published evidence has asterisks replacing the omitted passages. None of that evidence is explicitly referred to in this report, but our conclusions have been informed by it.
  43. We visited Scotland where we met among others the Deputy First Minister, Mr Jim Wallace MSP, and officials from the Justice Department of the Scottish Executive. We visited HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane and Coulport and Rosyth Dockyard. We have also visited other military establishments.
  44. We have been assisted in this inquiry by our Specialist Advisers Dr James Broderick,
  45. Mr Peter Clarke, Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold, Dr Eric Dykes, Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, Dr Andrew Rathmell, Mr Paul Read and Brigadier Austin Thorp. We have been particularly grateful for their help and guidance in areas which are not usual Defence Committee territory.

  46. In addressing the many different threads of this inquiry we have divided the issues into two broad themes. Firstly protection and prevention; this includes the traditional defensive measures against an external threat including international activities, and also counter-terrorism. Secondly consequence management and resilience, by which we mean the ability to respond to any successful attack in a way that minimises its effects and ensures as far as possible the continuity of government, other public agencies and society as a whole. Many agencies are involved in both these elements (including particularly the Armed Forces and the police). But this is a division which is reflected in government structures at the highest level: the Ministerial Group on Prevention and Protective Security (known as DOP (IT) T) determines policy for preventive and precautionary measures to counter the threat from terrorism, and the Civil Contingencies Committee has responsibility for dealing with the consequences of terrorist attack. Both are chaired by the Home Secretary[45]. It is also reflected in police structures: within the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Committee on Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) deals with issues relating to counter-terrorism and the Emergency Procedures Committee deals with emergency planning and consequence management.[46]
  47. Parliamentary Scrutiny

  48. One of the strengths of the select committee system is that, with the agreement of the relevant committees, one committee may pursue its inquiries into areas which are beyond its formal terms of reference. As the list of witnesses in paragraph 29 above illustrates, we have ranged widely across Whitehall and beyond. We could have ranged further. We are grateful to our sister committees for raising no obstacles to our pursuit of this inquiry. The attacks of 11 September and their consequences have implications for the whole breadth of government. We have by no means addressed them all. For example we have not examined the action taken to tackle the financing of international terrorism. Nor have we looked in detail at the cooperation that has taken place within the European Union, particularly in the Justice and Home Affairs Council. And we have not been the only committee to take an interest in these issues. The Home Affairs Committee examined the provisions of the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Bill.[47] The Foreign Affairs Committee has reported on the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism.[48] The Intelligence and Security Committee, a committee of parliamentarians rather than a parliamentary committee, also commented on the intelligence response in its recent annual report.[49]
  49. We have no doubt that Parliament and its committees will maintain a close interest in the consequences of the attacks of 11 September. There will be a continuing need for active scrutiny. We hope that this report will encourage other committees to follow up some of the areas which we have only been able to touch upon.


2   HC 348, Session 2001-02, para 2 Back

3   op cit, para 143 Back

4   The Strategic Defence Review, A New Chapter, Public Discussion Paper Back

5   HC Deb, 29 April 2002, col 658 Back

6   MoD Press Release, 15 July 2002 Back

7   Ev 258 Back

8   Ev 259 Back

9   Ev 28 Back

10   Q 1392 Back

11   The Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales: Executive Summary, para 1 Back

12   Q 4 Back

13   HC Deb, 14 September 2001, Col 606 Back

14   HC Deb, 19 November 2001, Col 30 Back

15   Op cit, para 8 Back

16   Q 5 Back

17   Q 1392 Back

18   Q 1415 Back

19   Q 321 Back

20   Q 1402 Back

21   Q 1403 Back

22   Q 1171 Back

23   Q 1208 Back

24   Q 1234 Back

25   Q 1180 Back

26   Cm 557, p19 Back

27   Op cit paragraph 16 Back

28   HC Deb, 14 October 1991, col 62 Back

29   The Strategic Defence Review para 1 Back

30   ibid, para 2 Back

31   ibid, para 9 Back

32   ibid Back

33   Ev 28 Back

34   The Strategic Defence Review: Supporting Essays, p 6-17 Back

35   The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter: Public Discussion Paper, para 1 Back

36   Op cit, para 101 Back

37   Fourth Special Report of Session 2001-02, HC 667, para 23 Back

38   Op cit, para 31 Back

39   Ev 28 Back

40   Op cit, para 5 Back

41   Op cit para 2 Back

42   Op cit para 8 Back

43   Q 1403 Back

44   For full list see pages 90-92 Back

45   Ev 258 Back

46   Q 1145 Back

47   First Report, Session 2001-02, HC 351 Back

48   Seventh Report, Session 2001-02, HC 384 Back

49   Annual Report 2001-02, Cm 5542 Back

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