Select Committee on Defence Sixth Report


  1. As we have pursued this inquiry it has seemed to take on the character of the Hydra. Each issue we have tackled has sprouted others that we should pursue. This may be inevitable when a modern and complex society faces a threat, which, however grave, is fundamentally unspecific. Unspecific in terms of target, of timing, and of method.
  2. Those whose job it is to plan against this threat whether in central government or elsewhere must feel something of this also. Traditional risk management techniques judge the seriousness of a risk by the sum of its potential consequences and its likelihood. But a terrorist attack on the scale of 11 September or using weapons of mass destruction could have catastrophic consequences. If such an attack is a genuine possibility—and we should not forget that Assistant Commissioner Veness has described it as a question of when not if[377]—can we justify deciding the amount of resources devoted to preparing against it on the grounds of inevitably imprecise calculations of its likelihood?
  3. But if we do not, how do we sensibly judge how much we should devote to such measures? Not only must expenditure on security measures be balanced against spending on other priorities, but also increasing security may itself have substantial economic consequences. In a recent study the OECD reported that industrial sources had estimated that tighter border controls could increase the cost of trading internationally by one to three per cent. The OECD itself estimated that an increase of that order 'could lead to a significant drop in international trade, negatively affecting openness, productivity and medium term output growth'.[378]
  4. Furthermore, as the Chief Executive Officer of the Business Continuity Institute told us, 'Security ... becomes a grudge purchase ... and therefore people will not want to pay'.[379]
  5. Emergency plans are all too easily left to gather dust. As time passes and the memories of even such terrible events as the attacks of 11 September begin to fade, the urgency of the priority given to issues of defence and security may diminish. There is an increasing temptation to impose a conventional or historic template on the response to a radical new threat. We saw evidence of that in the Government's approach to improving the security regime applying to shipping containers. British Airways have told us—

    Our perception is that, as time has passed, individual government departments have settled back into their traditional separate roles and this has resulted in a lack of cohesive project management.[380]

  6. Because so many different government departments and agencies have been involved in the action taken since 11 September, it is very difficult to judge the priority which the Government as a whole has given to these efforts. There is no separate budget for homeland security in the UK. We recommend that the Government, perhaps through the Cabinet Office and the CCS, publishes an annual report on the measures taken and expenditure incurred in respect of home defence and security. This report should bring together the contributions of all government departments and other relevant agencies and include reports from the devolved administrations.
  7. Informing the Public

  8. This annual report would also be a useful means of informing the public about the steps being taken to protect them and of encouraging them to maintain their vigilance. It could also provide the basis for the Government to undertake a systematic, risk-based, cost-benefit analysis of measures to manage the threat from terrorism. The Government might not want to publish this analysis in full, but a summary of it should be published.
  9. We appreciate that there are delicate judgements to be made over how much information should be made publicly available. We have noted the difficulties which the Government got itself into over its procurement of stocks of smallpox vaccine. These were compounded by its policy of refusing to give details of its countermeasures against the threat of biological terrorism.[381] The results of exercises such as Trump Card held in London in July 2000 have not been published in case they should be of assistance to potential terrorists. Substantial parts of the evidence which we have received from the Government for this inquiry have been classified. We have, of course, respected those classifications, but we have not always understood the reasons for them.
  10. The mechanisms and bodies through which the Government structures both its counter-terrorist and consequence management functions are complex and arcane. The UK Resilience web site, run by the CCS, provides a lot of information including a description of the functions of the CCS itself, but nothing on how the bigger picture fits together, how, for example, COBR relates to the CCS and the emergency services. The system could also be made easier to understand by some simple name changes. We have already recommended that the CCS should change its name. Why could not COBR (the Cabinet Office Briefing Room) be called the Government Emergency Room or something similar? As we have noted the Scottish Executive has a Scottish Emergency Room.
  11.  We believe that security against terrorist attacks in the UK could be improved by constructive public involvement. In order to obtain that involvement, however, the public will need to be better informed about the threats with which they are faced. In the past when there has been a terrorist threat of a particular kind (parcel bombs or bombs on railway stations) the public has been encouraged to be vigilant through public information campaigns. As the Minister of State, Home Office told us—
  12. You want to ensure that there is a proper state of preparedness or alertness in the public.[382]

  13. The CCS conducted research in October and December 2001 designed to examine the balance between the public's need for information, advice and reassurance and the problems of publishing information which might cause unnecessary alarm. The conclusions were—
  14. On the specific need for information, the research found that people did not have an urgent need for information. Indeed they did not want to see information published which might help terrorists plan an attack or create unwarranted anxiety. However they made it clear that they would want full and fast information if an attack took place, or there was a credible threat.[383]

  15. We need to disentangle several issues here. We do not believe that the public expects routinely to be informed of unspecific threats based on vague intelligence. On the other hand there is an obligation on the Government to provide adequate information on security issues to enable the public to make informed choices. We noted that there was disagreement between Mr Jack of the International Air Transport Association and Mr Hutcheson of BAA as to whether the public had a right to know which countries' or airlines' security measures fell below international standards. Mr Hutcheson's view was that the information should be available because 'your safety is paramount to you and you should be able to exercise a choice'.[384] Mr Jack disagreed, arguing that 'you trust the company, you trust the certification by Government'.[385]
  16. We agree with Mr Hutcheson. We understand that there is information whose public disclosure could be of material assistance to potential terrorists. We have evidence, however, which suggests that the Government takes refuge in that argument without always examining it as rigorously as it should. Information should be withheld from the public only where its publication would give rise to a specific and identifiable risk.
  17. We also recognise that disclosing information about particular threats can encourage hoaxes—as the 'white powder' incidents in late 2001 demonstrated. Hoaxes can cause real problems for the emergency services, tying up valuable resources which are needed elsewhere. But they should not be a determining factor on public information policy. The Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 substantially increased the penalties for those convicted of hoaxes using noxious substances . We believe that that is the correct approach to dealing with this scourge.
  18. As well as the public having a right to know what risks they face (within the obvious constraints which we have set out above), there are also potential advantages to the Government in greater openness. At present we believe that there is very little public understanding of what measures have been taken to increase security since 11 September. Travellers may notice additional procedures at airports. For a while after 11 September there were more police on London's streets. But the Government has provided no clear picture of its overall strategy. We believe that our recommendations for an annual report on security will give the Government a regular opportunity to set out its strategy.
  19. That report would also provide the Government with an opportunity to set out clearly its own structures and mechanisms in this area. As we have previously stated they are difficult to understand and by no means widely known. The Government has an obligation to explain how it organises its responsibilities for counter-terrorism and civil contingencies. We believe that that explanation would be far more accessible and comprehensible to the public if the names of some of its key components were changed.


377   Q 1195 Back

378   The Economic Consequences of Terrorism, OECD, June 2002 Back

379   Q 826 Back

380   Ev 316 Back

381   Q 1065 Back

382   Q 1513 Back

383   Ev 27 Back

384   Q 1303 Back

385   Q 1311 Back

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Prepared 24 July 2002