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3 Mar 2003 : Column 610—continued

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The problem is the terminology. The use of the word "significant" does not make it clear enough, to those who have to decide whether they wish to take the risk of going to a place with that threat level, that it means—as the Home Secretary has just said and as the Committee's report confirms—that the place is

Surely the problem is not the grading that the Security Service gave to the level of threat but the fact that the word used for that level did not sufficiently convey the seriousness of the accurate threat assessment that had been made.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is on to something, but we do not include the Security Service's raw threat assessment in the published travel advice, which reflects the intelligence assessments. Including the raw threat assessment would, on occasions, compromise the source of the intelligence—if it changed suddenly, for example, it could send a signal to the terrorists—and would be more likely to cause confusion in the minds of the public. I shall address the issue of how we aim to improve the travel advice in a moment, but at present we use the threat assessment as one input, and set it against other inputs, including the capacity of the local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to cope with a threat, to come to a description of the threat that the tourist, business person or British resident is likely to encounter in that country. In certain circumstances, we also offer advice about whether people should travel there at all, or in qualified circumstances.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Foreign Secretary note that there was a direct consequence of the Security Service not raising the threat level, which was that the Foreign Office did not revise the travel advice? It would have done so if the threat level had been raised, even if it had been raised to some intermediate level that was not available to the Security Service at the time.

Mr. Straw: It does not follow that because the threat level changes, the travel advice is automatically changed. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that had the threat level changed, it would have triggered a review of the travel advice. However, at the moment, threat levels move up and down, and the result of the Foreign Office's review of the risk, according to the Security Service's objective threat assessment, ends up on my desk or in my box. Often, I decide not to change the travel advice because it could need to be changed back the next week and that would promote confusion, not clarity. It would not necessarily improve the safety of the British public, which is always the paramount concern.

As the Committee noted in its report, the Security Service was already reviewing its threat assessment system before the Bali bombing. The Committee's recommendations have informed that review and I am pleased to tell the House that it will result in changes to

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the definitions of threat level, making them more informative to customer Departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That picks up the point made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

Counter-terrorism co-ordination is probably better in the United Kingdom than in most comparable countries. We do not have the inter-agency competition seen elsewhere on both sides of the Atlantic, but that does not mean that we should be complacent. We are continually taking steps to improve. As set out in the Government's response last month, experts from the agencies and relevant Departments will shortly be located in an expanded single joint terrorism analysis centre. Acting under the director general of the Security Service, that centre will be responsible for the long-term strategic assessment of the terrorist threat, as well as for the day-to-day response to specific intelligence. I share the Committee's concern that reports should be issued in a timely manner, and that will be a major objective of the new organisation.

I want to return to the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made about the intelligence that we received that mentioned Bali along with five other very large islands in Indonesia. Even if that intelligence had led to a change in travel advice, it might have remained very unspecific. It is important to make a point that the Committee itself made—that is, that we had received no intelligence that alerted us to the specific possibility of a terrorist atrocity taking place in Bali. Had there been, we would have ensured that that was reflected in the travel advice. I was anxious to make sure that the Committee was able to do its work and that, to that end, it had full access to all the intelligence. As was initially made public by Alexander Downer, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, then confirmed here, the intelligence that mentioned Bali also mentioned five other huge islands in Indonesia, so it covered about half the population and 70 per cent. or so of the destinations travelled to by western tourists.

Mr. Beith: The Foreign Secretary did indeed give the utmost co-operation to the Committee, for which we are grateful. However, surely the question that nobody asked at the time was, "Where in the whole of Indonesia is it possible to attack the largest number of western tourists with the greatest ease?" The answer has to be Bali, because that is where tourists were gathered in concentrations in nightclubs, and we know how dangerous a situation that is. That is where the misjudgment took place.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman says that with the benefit of 20–20 vision. When the judgment was made, the information was very unspecific, and tourists go to a large number of other destinations. The situation cuts both ways. Although western tourists congregate more in Bali than elsewhere in Indonesia, that is offset by the fact that Bali is overwhelmingly a Hindu, not a Muslim, island, so it should be a predominantly safe environment in which terrorists find it much more difficult to operate and to hide. Those are the kinds of difficult judgments that have to be made. I regret that the intelligence services did not have available specific intelligence saying that there was likely to be a serious terrorist threat in Bali because, for sure, we would then

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have alerted the law enforcement agencies in Bali and Indonesia, and we would also have immediately changed our travel advice. The truth about modern terrorists in the global village in which we live is that they can move anywhere in the world extremely quickly and that the equipment that they need to commit such atrocities is highly portable.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Paragraph 44 of the conclusions and recommendations says that

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is vital that people recognise that this is not an exercise of risk elimination, but has necessarily to be an exercise in risk management, and that the only way in which we can eliminate the risk is by eliminating the original motivation for the terrorism, which was not the remit of the report?

Mr. Straw: It is a matter of risk management. There is a wider issue about the way in which we deal with terrorism. I have always believed that we did that through a combination of the toughest security and, when possible, a political process. However, I stress to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that it has been difficult enough to develop a political process in Northern Ireland, where at least the terrorist groups had political front organisations, which had a developed political agenda. Although they were trying to blow up democratic institutions, they also stood for them. It is much more difficult to know how to reach accommodation with some religious terrorist organisations, which carry out suicide bombings.

Of course, I accept the hon. Gentleman's underlying point that if we can make significant progress on peace in the middle east and deal with terrorism through a combination of political process and effective security, that should help to change the overall environment. We are working on that. I also agree that we are conducting an exercise in risk management, not risk elimination. I shall comment on the nature of our travel advice in that context.

Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that British residents in Indonesia were given better advice through the e-mail service than travellers from this country received from the general Foreign Office advice service?

Mr. Straw: As ever, my right hon. Friend anticipates me. I shall deal with that specific point shortly, and if she is not satisfied with the reply, I shall give way again.

We are setting up a new, joint terrorism analysis centre. One of its major objectives is to produce more timely advice. The second broad criticism in the Intelligence and Security Committee's report covered the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's travel advice. The Committee found that the advice at the time of the Bali atrocity did not accurately reflect either the threat or recent developments in Indonesia. However, the report acknowledged that the advice was proportional to the assessment of the threat that the Security Service conducted.

The Committee reported that travel advice was not generally communicated to the public or the travel industry effectively, and that the purpose of the FCO

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travel advice should be reviewed. In my response, I welcomed the reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee and their valuable and timely examination of our travel advice system. Along with consular, immigration and commercial services, providing travel advice is my Department's core, front-line service to the British public. It is increasingly important.

British nationals make 60 million trips overseas each year. In addition, 15 million British nationals live overseas. The demand for advice is growing. My Department's website has 28,000 subscribers who receive changes to travel advice as they issue. We also receive 675,000 page impressions of travel advice each month. It is therefore imperative to do everything that we can to get the service right.

We have always taken great care to ensure that intelligence assessments translate into sensible advice to British travellers and residents overseas.

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