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20 Nov 2002 : Column 658—continued

David Winnick: Although I accept both what my right hon. Friend said to the shadow Home Secretary and what the Prime Minister said earlier, does my right hon. Friend agree that there was much public disquiet arising from reports that appeared during the past week or so, even if some of them were inaccurate? Does he also agree that terrorists would not have the slightest reluctance to strike at Britain if it was at all possible? In those circumstances, although I realise that some information cannot be given for security reasons, is there not a need to give as much information as possible, so that the public have a pretty good idea—no false optimism but no reason to panic? Such information should, of course, come from the highest level of the Government.

Mr. Blunkett: That is precisely why we issued information both on 9 September and two weeks ago. That is precisely why, on 11 July, the House debated the update on the excellent report produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee. That was a damn good debate, yet only one newspaper—one national newspaper—reported any of it. That is the level of interest when no mindless speculation is going on. If any newspaper reporter has evidence that we have not presented the public with a specific warning or that there is a specific danger, I challenge them to bring it to me personally today, tomorrow or any time. They have open access to my office.

We need to be transparently honest with the British people. Only then will people stop continually crying wolf, so undermining real opportunities to give warnings should the need arise. At present, there is the same level of heightened concern that we experienced at the same time during the run-up to Christmas last year. As I pointed out, there are concerns about the way in which we presented, and answered questions in the

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House on, the extra measures resulting from Sir John Wheeler's report on Heathrow. We indicated, as we did when we laid the orders, that we would reconsider issues that hon. Members have raised in relation to ports. We have constantly been prepared to consider suggestions for improvements.

There is general heightened awareness. There is no specific warning from the security or intelligence services about a designated attack in this country, about a site or about a method of achieving such an attack. There is a level of vigilance and security activity that has led to the arrest of those suspected of involvement in developing, planning or preparing to carry out terrorist acts.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the Security Service and to the anti-terrorist branch for what they are doing and for their continued vigilance. That is what I want from the services. I shall continue to undertake a co-ordinating role—that is what it is. I shall continue to report to the Prime Minister, which is the correct route, in order to safeguard the British people in the best possible way.

Should there be a specific and verifiable need for a warning and should we believe that such a warning could aid people to protect themselves or provide additional warning to others, or that it could, in any way, contribute to foiling a possible attack, we shall say so and we shall issue that necessary warning. That is a promise from the Government as a whole.

I have every confidence in the services and in their capability, and I hope that hon. Members will accept that. If there is a specific and verifiable issue that requires an answer, I shall always come to the Dispatch Box, but I make it clear again: to come to the Dispatch Box on the back of every piece of speculation would heighten tension and raise fears. It would discredit the process when there really was something to report to the House. That is the stand that I intend to take.

Simon Hughes: The Home Secretary has our sympathy and support on this matter. Indeed, everything that he has said appears to be consistent with his public statements and those made by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and the exaggeration appears to be the result of the press speculating and exaggerating in an entirely unhelpful way. Given that we entirely accept all that the Home Secretary has said and agree that the approach is right, does he agree that any structural change in the way that the Government deal with such things—there are arguments for such a change—should be done, first, in a considered way; secondly, if possible, with agreement throughout the House; and, thirdly, not off the back of a change in the structures in the United States, with its entirely different system and history, which it seems entirely inappropriate to mimic two months later?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I would give that assurance. When I met Tom Ridge twice two weeks ago, he indicated that the United States faces a difficulty not only because of its federal structure, with enormous power in the hands of the state legislatures and elsewhere, but because it does not have the equivalent of MI5. The United States

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has no internal security and intelligence facility in the way that we do, but it is considering one because it is interested in the way in which we operate. We did not pretend to Tom Ridge that everything is perfectly fine here or that there is no room for improvement; we said that we would like to learn from each other, and I hope that we can do so.

The massive department with a multi-billion pound budget for which Congress is now voting in relation to the homeland security facility is way beyond anything that we in this country could contemplate without completely dislocating not only our government procedures but the investment that we need in key services that secure the kind of lifestyle, economy and services that make this country worth living in in the first place. The message has been clear from all parties that we must not allow others to disrupt our economy and social life because, if we do, they have won. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Letwin : Of course I accept that there are limits to what can be done, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Defence Committee report, which is not a partisan document, revealed very serious concerns about whether the co-ordination was working in any serious way? Leaving aside all the hype of what necessarily goes on during Prime Minister's questions at both Dispatch Boxes, does he accept that the National Audit Office report on the national health service gives serious cause for concern? Does he accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) was making a serious point when he mentioned that each of the Ministers currently most involved in such matters has a huge work load? I quail at the idea of doing such things myself. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if this is a very serious concern for the whole Government, there needs to be some means or other by which someone or other is full-time in the job?

Mr. Blunkett: Someone or other is full-time in the job at some time or another, but it does not have to be a full-time politician, running around looking for a job to do. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right; I quail as well at the responsibilities that I hold, but I am very happy to keep them for a little longer. He is right to suggest that they are onerous, but they are integral to the security issues. The whole operation of the linkage between one aspect of Home Office work and another makes it the appropriate recipient for the political responsibility of co-ordination, as has been judged by different Governments for many years. We all agree that people should decentralise accountability and responsibility to those who carry it day to day, because we could not do such things from the centre. We are always being accused of being over-centralising, but people cannot have it both ways.

Yes, there is room for improvement. The NAO report suggested ways to improve and we are acting on them. We answered the work done by the Defence Committee in the normal way some time ago, but we also took its point about further co-ordination, which is why Sir David Omand, who is respected by everyone, has taken over, reporting direct to the secretary to the Cabinet on these matters. He is already doing a good job in pulling together and supporting the existing work

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that has already been put in train. So there is a constant process of improvement—there must be. As I repeated earlier, if anyone thinks that there is a problem inside a service or elsewhere, let us have a go at improving it, rather than being defensive about it.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way once more, and then I want to get on to the main issue.

Mr. Maples: The Home Secretary has talked a lot in the past few minutes about the need for co-ordination of various activities at Cabinet level. There is also a need to drive the change in the focus of our various security agencies, not all of which report to the right hon. Gentleman—some do, but some report to the Foreign Secretary. Their focus must be more on terrorism. I know that that is taking place, but there is a role to be played in driving that change and that focus, and in making sure that they have the resources to do it. That is not just a question of co-ordination.

Mr. Blunkett: The Prime Minister has direct responsibility in terms of the overall co-ordination of the security and intelligence services, and, through the Cabinet Secretary, for ensuring adequate resourcing. That resourcing has been put in place, and we have reported to the Intelligence and Security Committee on that resourcing and what was required. As it reported on 11 July, it was satisfied that we had done that. That was updated in the spending review.

It would be helpful if I now moved on to the main debate. I shall be brief, as I know that many Members wish to speak. First, there is no difference between the shadow Home Secretary and me on the presumption of innocence or on the test of reasonable doubt. I do not want us to enter into debates this winter with any doubt between us on these matters. I also want to highlight an interesting debate which we shall probably have on Second Reading, so I shall not refer to it in great detail today: how those who are most attached to universal jury trial are most suspicious about trusting the jury when it comes to issues such as double jeopardy. We all need to reflect on whether we believe what we are saying. If we trust the jury, and we trust the process of guidance from the judiciary, we should be aware of that.

Another issue that the right hon. Member for West Dorset raised, to which I want to take exception—many of the points on which we cross swords over the Dispatch Box are issues of principle or are good points that I am prepared to refute or to concede—is that of police coming from overseas, which is a good example of the right hon. Gentleman making a little mischief. We have to give the Opposition leeway for a bit of mischief, but I want to put the record straight. What this is really about is someone coming into the country who has been carrying out surveillance on someone abroad, and being given, under the proposals, five hours to continue that surveillance so that our internal forces can take over. That is a staggering erosion of our rights and civil liberties. I imagine that there might be a whole article in The Daily Telegraph on the subject over the next week or two. There are serious issues about the arrest warrant

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that we should, and will, debate—such as the presumption of innocence and the right of appeal to the district judge—but that is not one of them.

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