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15 Jan 2003 : Column 692—continued

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I am one whose voice and vote have always supported the current Home Secretary in his attempts to deal with difficult questions, and for everyone in this House difficult questions do indeed surround this issue. As he knows, my constituency office deals with a high number of asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom are here genuinely. However, last week an Afghan refugee came into my office and said that he was claiming asylum as a former fighter with the Taliban. One needs to question whether this is a sensible system. If we have a war in Iraq, at the end of it supporters of Saddam Hussein would presumably be entitled to claim asylum in the west. This is a ridiculous position.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not consider that it is not possible for people to return to Afghanistan. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, I would not consider that it was impossible for people to return to a free and democratic Iraq. However, I take my hon. Friend's point entirely. Sanity has to prevail in the way in which we legislate and process matters, and in the way in which the judicial system deals with appeals. If the individual in question was trying to hide his intent or past history, he was not doing a particularly good job of it by coming into my hon. Friend's surgery and announcing his past endeavours.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Speaking as the wife of a former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which of course lost 302 officers at the hands of those involved in terrorist activity, may I say how desperately sorry I was that we learned last night of

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the murder of a young police officer doing his duty in Manchester? Mercifully, we have been spared such acts in Northern Ireland in recent years. I am terribly sorry for Stephen Oake's family that they have been put through such pain and suffering, as well as his colleagues and the community of Manchester. Such an event is a terrible tragedy in any community.

May I urge the Home Secretary to consult the present Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, to see what lessons can be learned further to protect police officers, to ensure that there is no repetition of last night's appalling incident in Manchester?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I am very happy to do that. We all accept that the hon. Lady was closer to such events through her husband than any of us have been. We respect and understand her very strong feelings.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): May I add my condolences to the family of Stephen Oake? I also pay tribute to the security and intelligence services, which have obviously twice now got the right information and managed to track down activity that is dangerous to all of us.

Nevertheless, will the Home Secretary answer the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) from the Front Bench? Will he specifically tell me what his reasons are for not adopting a policy of securely housing all new applicants for asylum until either, under my proposed policy, their cases are determined, or, according to the advice that he received from his officials, at least until their identity has been determined?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I did not receive such advice. I am aware of the disclosure to the right hon. Lady under the appropriate Act and of the e-mail sent by a junior official shortly after I had made a statement to Parliament laying out how the induction reporting and ARC—application registration card—system would register and track those who came to the immigration service in a way that was not possible before June 2001. Secondly, I said that the logistical cost of providing wholly secure accommodation for every single asylum seeker and their dependents while they are assessed and their security rating is evaluated is enormous. As we have seen in respect of planning consents, we could still be in the process of trying to secure those centres without the reporting, the ARC card and induction in a way that would not have ensured our security—but might have made her feel better.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Having finished the admirable 20-day parliamentary police service scheme in Brixton only last Friday, may I express my especial sympathy to the family of DC Oake and to the officers who were injured in Manchester? It is our duty to the police service and the country as a whole to ensure that our systems of immigration control really work and that those who are in breach of the immigration regulations are returned promptly. In respect of applications for asylum, we must ensure that the provisions of the Dublin convention are upheld.

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Thus, applicants who come from EU countries should not, prima facie, have to be dealt with in this country, but should be returned to the EU country in which they first arrived.

Mr. Blunkett: I agree entirely. I know that the whole House will support the Government in future when we deal with those cases, as we had to with the Ahmadi family.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): As someone who has been present at the scene of the murder of several police officers, I should like to join the rest of the House in expressing my sympathy for Constable Oake and my admiration for the security services in the success that they have achieved. However, when such an incident occurs, it is not currently clear whether the Security Service, the chief constable of the region concerned, or the national co-ordinator of the Metropolitan police's anti-terrorist branch is in charge. If some good is to come from the death of this brave constable, can we ensure that that situation is resolved?

Mr. Blunkett: The Security Service does its job in detecting, conducting surveillance and advising. The anti-terrorism branch works, as it always has, with the local police, as they are the enforcement and arresting authorities. The police are therefore co-ordinated through the anti-terrorism branch in incidents such as yesterday's. It obviously behoves those immediately in charge to ensure that at each stage of the process—there are different stages, as I am sure will become clear as the evidence emerges—the appropriate force is in charge of the aspect in question. I do not want to go further in that regard, as it is important that the major incident programme be undertaken. It is also important that the evaluation of the evidence from those involved be brought forward at a time when, after the terrible trauma caused to those who were present at the incident and had to deal with the attack on the officers who were injured, as well as the death of Stephen Oake, we can evaluate it more carefully.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The Home Secretary is undoubtedly correct to say that what has ended as a police tragedy began as a Security Service success, but does he recall a not dissimilar incident in a prison camp in Afghanistan, when an American interrogator was murdered by someone whom he was interrogating in circumstances in which one would normally have thought that violence was unlikely? Is not one of the lessons that should be drawn from what happened that the mentality of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists is such that they will lash out whenever they can, even if it is to their own obvious disadvantage? Should he not, without prejudging the circumstances of this case, perhaps consider when all those circumstances are known whether guidelines should be issued saying that people who are arrested on suspicion of such terrorist activities should be held in handcuffs until they are removed to a secure environment?

Mr. Blunkett: I am sure that the lessons of yesterday's incident will be learned and that there will be an evaluation of the process that took place in terms of the

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unhandcuffing of the individual who committed the act and obtained a knife. At this stage, I think that it would better if we said no more about the incident.

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Missile Defence

1.18 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on missile defence.

The House will recall that in the defence debate on 17 October I described the work in the United States on the development of ballistic missile defence systems and the Government's thinking on the issue. Subsequently, on 9 December, as I informed the House during defence questions that day, I placed in the Library a discussion paper produced by the Ministry of Defence setting out the role that active missile defence might play within a comprehensive strategy for tackling the threat from ballistic missiles. On 17 December, I informed the House of the receipt of a request from the United States Government to upgrade the early warning radar at Fylingdales for missile defence purposes.

I have repeatedly emphasised that the Government would not respond to such a request without a further opportunity for discussion in the House. Next week's defence debate is a timely further occasion for the House to discuss the challenges that the United Kingdom faces in the new international security environment, including those posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology. I hope that the House will find it helpful if today I set out the Government's thinking on the US request.

The Government recognise that missile defence raises important strategic issues, as well as local concerns in North Yorkshire. Following the release of the discussion paper in December, with its invitation to all interested parties to contribute their views, we have had around 300 responses. In addition, I visited North Yorkshire last week, and heard the views of local people and their elected representatives, as well as meeting representatives from the planning authorities. We have taken those views into account as we have considered the central question, which is the key test that the Government will apply to the US request: would agreeing to the upgrade of Fylingdales ultimately enhance the security of the UK and the NATO Alliance?

The background to the US request is the marked increase in the threat to our security from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. The Prime Minister has described weapons of mass destruction as the key issue facing the world community. It is a real threat to our security, fanned by proliferation from irresponsible regimes. As we all know, threat is a combination of intention and capability. Intentions can be debated, but they can also change at very short notice. The evidence of expanding capabilities, therefore, cannot responsibly be ignored. The hard fact is that a number of states of concern are making major investments in developing ever-longer range ballistic missiles. We are not referring here to countries developing standard military technology against the risk of conventional conflict. These ballistic missile programmes are being developed solely in order to threaten the delivery of mass destruction—nerve gas, toxins, biological agents or even nuclear warheads. It is the combination of ballistic missiles and the possession of these weapons of mass destruction, together with the demonstrated willingness to use those capabilities, that

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makes Iraq the most immediate state threat to global security. Elsewhere, if North Korea ends its moratorium on flight testing, it could flight test a missile with the potential to reach Europe and the United States within weeks. Other countries may acquire similar missile systems, not least through the proliferation of missile technology from North Korea.

Based on the analysis and discussion that we have undertaken so far, I have therefore come to the preliminary conclusion that the answer to the US request must be yes, and that we should agree to the upgrade as proposed.

RAF Fylingdales has operated since 1963 as a ballistic missile early warning system, which together with other radars in the United States and Greenland provides tactical warning and attack assessment of a missile attack against the United Kingdom, North America or western Europe. It has been upgraded a number of times over the years. Many hon. Members will recall the old Xgolf balls" that were dismantled in the late 1980s and replaced with the existing pyramid-like structure. Indeed, a life extension programme is under way to maintain its capabilities to provide early warning and track objects in space. These missions will continue to be the primary function of RAF Fylingdales.

I have sought to dispel a number of misapprehensions about the US request in various meetings in North Yorkshire. The proposal is for an upgrade of the existing radar, not some massive new construction. No change to the external appearance of the radar should be involved. The upgrade essentially comprises modification to the hardware and software of the computers within the base. There will be no change in the power output of the radar, which is many times below statutory safety limits. We therefore believe that no health risk to people or livestock could arise. We have already explained to the local planning authorities that we see nothing in the upgrade proposals that would require formal planning consultation, and we have promised to provide them with full supporting evidence in due course.

The upgrade of the Fylingdales radar can and should be considered as a discrete proposition. It does not commit us in any way to any deeper involvement in missile defence, although it gives us options to do so, should we decide on that at a later date. It will not involve huge costs. The upgrade will be performed at US expense, and we do not expect any significant variation in the running costs of RAF Fylingdales, which, as is appropriate for an RAF station, we already bear.

Agreeing to the upgrade is not at odds with the wider approach of our NATO allies. The Prague summit agreed

The Danish Government have received a parallel request to upgrade the early warning radar in Greenland.

Missile defence is a defensive system that threatens no one. We see no reason to believe fears that the development of missile defences will be strategically destabilising. Reactions from Russia and China have been measured. Missile defence would need to be used

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only if a ballistic missile has actually been fired. At that point, no matter how much we emphasise our other means of addressing the threat—non-proliferation, intelligence, law enforcement, conflict prevention, diplomacy and deterrence—those means will have failed and cannot be of further help. There would be no way of preventing a devastating impact without intercepting and destroying the missile. Once the missile is in the air, it is unthinkable that anyone could not want us to be in a position to shoot it down.

Those are the reasons for concluding that agreeing to the US request would not prejudice the UK's interests. But beyond that, the key consideration is that it would represent an invaluable extra insurance against the development of a still uncertain, but potentially catastrophic, threat to the citizens of this country. There is not yet an immediate threat to us of this kind, but there is a distinct possibility that this threat could materialise in the relatively near future. It would therefore be irresponsible for the Government to leave the United Kingdom without a route map to acquire a defence against this threat. An upgraded Fylingdales radar would be a vital building-block on which missile defence for this country and for our European neighbours could later be developed, if the need arises and if we so decide.

We are confident that agreeing to this request will not significantly increase the threat to the UK. The security interests of the UK are already closely identified with those of the US and other NATO allies. That will not change, regardless of decisions on missile defence. Keeping a low profile and hoping for the best is simply not an option. We also believe that any increased threat to RAF Fylingdales itself is negligible. For the foreseeable future, states of concern are very unlikely to have the sophisticated capability or size of arsenal to consider targeting specific points or military installations. Long-range missiles in their hands will essentially be weapons of terror, and, as with all military installations in the UK, the station is well defended against terrorist attack. But we must not forget that what drives the threat against the UK is not the deployment of missile defences, but those states of concern who develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

The upgrade would indicate no commitment to further involvement with missile defence deployments. Separately, we intend to agree a new technical memorandum of understanding with the United States that would give us full insight into the development of their missile defence programme and the opportunity for UK industry to reap the benefits of participation. But any UK acquisition of missile defence would be subject to a separate decision, at the relevant time. We must approach this in stages, considering each step in the light of how both the threat and the relevant technologies evolve.

The Government have not yet formally replied to the US Administration on their request to upgrade the Fylingdales radar. I await with interest the views that hon. Members will wish to put forward, today and in next week's debate. But it is only right that the House should know the Government's preliminary conclusion that it is in the UK's interests to agree to the request. From the UK's national perspective, this specific decision is one that has real potential benefits at

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essentially no financial cost. It will ensure that if, in the coming years, we find that a potentially devastating threat is becoming a reality, we have the opportunity to defend against it.

Weapons of mass destruction present the gravest risk to UK security. A ballistic missile launched at the UK is the most catastrophic potential threat to our people in the future. A Government's first duty is to protect their citizens, and that is a duty that this Government will not shirk from undertaking.

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