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15 Jan 2003 : Column 683—continued

Greater Manchester Police Incident

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on yesterday's events in Manchester.

I know that the House would want to reiterate the words of the Prime Minister in expressing great sadness, regret and outrage at yesterday's tragic events in Greater Manchester, which resulted in the death of Detective Constable Stephen Oake and the injury of four other police officers. Our deepest condolences go to Detective Oake's family; our thoughts must be with them and the injured and their families at this time.

Yesterday, I used my powers under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 to certify the detention, pending deportation, of two foreign nationals who are suspected of involvement in terrorism and of posing a threat to national security. The Greater Manchester police were acting with immigration officers in support of the operation to detain one of those individuals. Police in Manchester detained three men in total. The second national certified by me has now been detained in London. In total, 15 people have so far been detained under the provisions of the Act.

Greater Manchester police have activated their major incident procedures and are conducting a murder inquiry. I shall, of course, report further to the House when I am in a position to do so.

On 7 November, I outlined in a written statement the scale and nature of the threat that we face from international terrorists. In the past few months, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have made it clear that that threat is a continuing and dangerous one. I know that the whole House supports the efforts of the police and the security services to detect and prevent terrorist incidents. Parliament has provided the authorities with extra powers through the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, and I regularly discuss with the security services and the police how those powers are being used and whether they are being used effectively.

Yesterday's events highlighted the ongoing threat that we face. In combating that threat, we rely on the bravery and commitment of police officers and security services in defending us against dangerous criminals and those who threaten the very safety of our country. I commend their bravery to the House.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear, we all share the Home Secretary's admiration for the efforts of police officers involved in protecting our lives against terrorism. Our condolences go to the bereaved and our thoughts are with those officers who have been wounded.

It is far too early to make comments or ask detailed questions about the operation, which clearly went badly wrong in some respects. I am sure that in due course the Home Secretary will give the House some information on the way in which the operation was conducted, on what can be done better to protect police officers under

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such circumstances, and on whether it is appropriate, in such circumstances, for them to be armed. However, this episode also draws our attention to wider questions.

For many months, I have been attempting to alert the Home Secretary and the Government as a whole—and the country as a whole—to the fact that although the Government very clearly have the protection of citizens at heart, and although they do have some machinery to achieve that effect, there are worrying signs that there is not yet the level of urgency that is needed to match the level of threat that the Government rightly acknowledge. The recent entry into Sizewell B power station by some protesters was a worrying sign; signs from the civil defence community that the level of preparedness on the ground is not all that it might be are also worrying.

I hope that the Home Secretary will tell us today that he will redouble his efforts to increase co-ordination to match the level of threat; but, beyond that, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out in Prime Minister's questions a moment ago, this episode raises the question of whether our current chaotic system of asylum arrangements, of which the Home Secretary is very well aware and which he has attempted in one way and another to mend, notwithstanding the fact that his predecessor left them in probably the worst state of any country in the civilised world—

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The right hon. Gentleman should not say things like that.

Mr. Letwin: The right hon. Gentleman says that I should not say things like that, but they happen to be true, and have been known to be true. They have been known by the current Home Secretary to be true, which is why he has been trying to put them right. However, I regret to say that there is ample evidence that, at present, people are getting through the asylum system who do not have the best interests of this country at heart, and who intend to pursue terrorist activities. What will the Home Secretary do over the coming weeks and months urgently to intensify the security vetting of those who seek to enter this country? That is clearly the question that the House needs to ask, and it is clearly the question that the Home Secretary needs to answer.

Mr. Blunkett: I am deeply sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to attack the record and actions of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary—[Hon. Members: XWhy"?] He inherited a system that was on the verge of breakdown. I, at another time—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Opposition Front Benchers have asked the Home Secretary several questions, so it is only courteous to listen to what the Home Secretary has to say.

Mr. Blunkett: At another time and in a more appropriate setting I shall be happy to explain why we had to put in place a new computerised fingerprinting operation, why we had to restore a system following the collapse of the computer that had been ordered in 1996 and why my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) had to take the actions that he did; but let us deal now with last night's events.

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The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is right to say that, as part of the inquiry, proper facts about what happened will be laid out. It is my understanding, however, that the initial incursion by a very large number of police, supported by immigration services, was made with the support of armed police officers and with the necessary body armour. It was subsequent events that led to the tragic death of Stephen Oake. It is my understanding also, and I think that it will be the understanding of the House, that the work of MI5 and of special branch and the police, leading to the arrests, shows how well our system is working in identifying and taking action against those who threaten our lives and security. It is precisely because we certificated those people whom we believed to be a risk that Greater Manchester police were acting on the advice given to me, through the security services. That affirms that the system is working—tragically, it led to the death of Stephen Oake—and underpins the fact that we are on top of those who threaten our lives and livelihoods.

We do not need to be reminded by the right hon. Gentleman that he has drawn my attention to the urgency of the matter. After all, the Government were held to account by the Opposition parties and by some elements of the press for what they described as acting too urgently and precipitately in autumn 2001. We were opposed for that very reason again and again in the House and we were ridiculed for it. In the past 12 months, certain elements of the Opposition and the press have constantly said that our action was disproportionate and that we did not have a balanced approach to the protection of our nation vis-à-vis the freedom of the individual. It is those who believe in global trade, global movements and the freedom of the individual who are now calling for even more draconian measures.

Let me deal head on with the issue raised by the Leader of the Opposition and, on his behalf, by the shadow Home Secretary, who must have to eat his words as he repeats his leader's decision to up the ante on asylum. Let us be clear about what we have done. We have introduced a warning system, whereby everyone who goes through the immigration process is identified to check whether they are on the security services' warning index.

I assure the House that, first, we will look into further refining that system by using the computerised fingerprinting and surveillance systems that Opposition Members so often oppose, which were in part introduced by the present Foreign Secretary.

Secondly, on 29 October 2001 I announced the introduction of a range of new processes—induction, reporting centres and an asylum registration card, which is now virtually completely in place—to make registration meaningful and enable us to track those moving through the asylum process. We strengthened the entire immigration process, as the Prime Minister reiterated, to ensure that those who commit a crime can be removed, that there is a fast-track system for doing that and that we can quickly reject those who come into our country clandestinely.

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On the basis of expediency, the very people who have chosen to use asylum in the way they have this afternoon have opposed so much of what we have done. Let me make it clear that whatever the basis on which people enter our country—on a visa for tourism or for short stays, with a visa for a work permit or as asylum seekers—we will deal with them if they pose a threat to our country.

In the interests of community and race relations, however, let no one suggest that we can assume that asylum seekers pose the sole threat and that it is asylum that we need to fear. It is those people who use asylum and freedom of movement throughout the world and who organise against our interests whom we must fear. It is the people who are helping us to arrest, hold and secure those who pose that threat of whom we should be so proud today.

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