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3 Mar 2003 : Column 625—continued

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): This is not intended to be a flippant point because we are discussing desperately serious matters. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the word processor is, in a way, part of the difficulty? We found that the same phrases and the same paragraphs were repeated and recycled in successive issues of travel advice over a long period. Is it not important, especially when, rightly, the Foreign Office is seeking to keep travel advice low key and unsensational, that those who draft it regularly should revisit the prose and refresh and renew it? Otherwise, those who read it may take a glance and say, "It's the same as before and there is nothing significant for us to take note of."

Ann Taylor: I have completely to agree with my right hon. Friend that that sort of approach and attitude is part of the problem. It may also be part of the solution, in that it is easier to make changes quickly. E-mails make it easier to get out information to travel agents, for example. Occasionally we need people who have not been working with these problems and issues, day in and day out, to be involved. We need people who can step back from the generality of knowledge of the experts so that they can say what hits them from any block of information. Sometimes, when people are living too close to an issue day in and day out, they find it difficult to understand how someone outside might find information too reassuring or too alarming. That is one of the aspects that must be taken into account.

I am glad that the Government have found time for the debate. I hope that the report and the fact that we are having the debate show that the relevant agencies are accountable to Parliament through the ISC, and that the ISC performs a useful role. I am pleased that the Government have responded quickly. It is a tragic situation, but some positive things are coming out of it in terms of the changes to the threat assessment system, the improvement of co-ordination through JTAC, and the altering of the style and quality of Foreign Office travel advice. I know that that will be no real consolation to the relatives of those who died or who were injured, but I hope that these improvements will play some part in helping us all to protect people further in future. I am grateful to the Government for taking on board so many of our recommendations.

6.15 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon Tweed): I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), the Chairman of the Committee, and to

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have had the privilege of working closely with her and the rest of my colleagues on the Committee on this matter. I do so by way of a surprising guest reappearance on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I am deputising for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). However, I will be reflecting on my experience as a member of the Committee. My right hon. and hon. Friends have welcomed the report and some of the things that have followed from it.

It was a terrible incident when nearly 200 holidaymakers were killed. Most of them were young people, 24 of them were British and many more were Australian. A couple of weeks later, the members of the Committee were in Australia. We saw there what a dramatic effect the tragedy had had on the entire Australian community, and on Australians of every racial and ethnic background. There was an outpouring of grief and a sense of shock. Perhaps that came almost as a surprise to us because we have become case-hardened in Britain by our experience of IRA terrorism. However, the incident had a profound impact in Australia. A recent service in Southwark cathedral commemorated the British victims of the tragedy. The Foreign Secretary, who attended, has referred to it.

We saw the fundamental evil of terrorism. It is not the loss of innocent life as an unintended consequence of the pursuit of a military target. It is, as we saw with IRA terrorism, the deliberate slaughter of people who are not involved in the military or political actions and decisions that terrorists are seeking to challenge. It is the most cowardly form of warfare.

There are many arguments about when there can be a just war. Indeed, many of us are engaged presently in those very arguments about when there can be a just use of military or violent means. Terrorism is the antithesis of a just war. It has no possible moral basis.

My right hon. and hon. Friends welcome the report. We welcome also the fact that the Foreign Secretary so readily ensured that all the intelligence evidence was available to the Committee. That is essential for a judgment to be made on behalf of colleagues in the House who cannot see the evidence. The fact that it is in part a critical judgment may be discomforting to the Government and the agencies, but it serves as a vindication of the process of democratic scrutiny of intelligence and security services. That is an essential process and one that needs to be exercised in this way.

It is important to recognise that the Committee concluded that there was no intelligence of a specific threat to nightclubs in Bali, and therefore no basis on which action could have been taken to prevent the attack or even to mount an emergency evacuation of western tourists from the island. Although Bali was covered, like many other places, by a significant threat level, it was generally regarded as a relatively safe location for tourism because its population is predominantly Hindu. Therefore, it was felt that it was unlikely to be involved in Islamic anti-western demonstrations or activities. By contrast, some Indonesian islands were regarded as very unsafe places, and more recent events have demonstrated that that was correct.

There was, however, increasing intelligence of Jemaah Islamiyah links to al-Qaeda and the potential development by that and other groups of local

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terrorism. There were threats to US and UK interests, including tourists in nightclubs, which were reported. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury referred to them. There was an attack on a US diplomatic residence on 23 September. Indonesia was known to have less than effective anti-terrorist policing, to put it mildly. There was no reliable basis for supposing that the risks were confined to Jakarta and would never extend to Bali.

That brings me to the crucial failure that led to what the Committee called a "serious misjudgement". It was the failure to ask the question that I put to the Foreign Secretary earlier. Where in Indonesia is there a concentration of tourists vulnerable to attack where many people can be killed in one operation? There is only one answer to that question, and it is Bali.

The threat that we are talking about was not primarily one to tourists who are not concentrated. It is not primarily a threat to hill walkers, scuba divers, surfers or independent travellers. It was the threat represented by the vulnerability of a large number of tourists—almost entirely western tourists—packed in one vulnerable location or a few vulnerable locations.

Mass tourism to Bali has nightclubs or discos as one of its principal attractions. That is what most tourists go to Bali to enjoy for at least part of the time that they spend there. Advice to


is meaningless in that context. It is relevant advice to a business man who lives in the country and can alter his pattern of movements and look out for potential threats and dangers. It is not meaningful advice to people who are going to a place on the assumption that it is relatively safe for them to go there.

We know that nightclubs are vulnerable places, even without terrorism. If we add up the number killed in fires or other emergencies in nightclubs in the past few years in Chicago, Caracas, Vollendam, Durban, Gothenburg, Manila and two cases in China, it comes to almost 900 lives lost. Like crowded shopping centres, nightclubs are an attractive target for terrorists, particularly when they are known to attract only or primarily foreign visitors.

Perhaps it is the Foreign Office that should have been alert to the precise nature of Bali tourism, rather than the Security Service, whose focus was on the terrorists themselves. That brings me to the system failure. If the Security Service assessment had been raised to the next level, that would have triggered a review of the Foreign Office advice, as the Foreign Secretary agreed in an earlier exchange. But it was not raised, so the process was not initiated. That is one reason why we recommended a level of advice between "significant" and "high".

In any case, the Foreign Office should be conscious of the nature of the travel and tourism to which its advice relates. There is a world of difference between advising UK residents working in a dangerous country on how to minimise risks to their safety, and advising people whether they should go to a dangerous place if they intend to spend much of their time there in a crowded disco, which is a location vulnerable to terrorism.

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Mention has been made of the difference between the advice on the website and the general travel advice. The Government's response relates to this and states:


When I read that, I thought that it was the wrong way round. If the advice is not consistent, the message ought to be that the people locally, at the post, seem to know something that has not got through into the general travel advice being issued in London. I am glad the Foreign Secretary amplified that slightly puzzling statement to indicate that it means that if there is a difference, the local post should not take out the advice that there is a new danger; it should get on to London and report what it is advising, so that that can be reflected in the general travel advice. I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary's clarification.

We believe that an error was made, but it must be set in context. First, the agencies had obtained valuable intelligence in a difficult situation, in a part of the world in which they did not have substantial resources because it had not been of the highest priority in earlier years. As we said, it takes time for new resources to work through. The agencies did their job, and in all other respects, they did it remarkably well in difficult circumstances. We have seen the raw evidence of that. The "serious misjudgement" to which we referred was, I think, a gap in lateral thinking—a gap in making good and imaginative use of the information that they had striven to obtain and draw to the attention of those who needed to know about it.

Secondly, as regards context, although for reasons that I have set out Bali had become a dangerous place to be in a nightclub, there are many dangerous places. London is a dangerous place and the House is a dangerous place, although in both cases, the terrorist faces much better anti-terrorist measures than he did in Indonesia. But it only takes one to get through. We saw the consequences of that with the IRA mainland bombs. The twin towers were a dangerous place on 11 September. The Pentagon, of all places, was a dangerous place. As the Prime Minister said, we do not intend to close down the world and its activities and thus hand victory to the terrorists.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pointed out, we are discussing how we manage risks. We need good advice on the basis of which to make prudent judgments—often, judgments as individuals about what risks we are willing to take. The advice should be as good as it can be. I do not think, and I believe that most of my colleagues on the Committee agree with me, that we want to go down the road of the United States' style of travel advice, which indicates a wide degree of threat and to some extent reinforces American citizens in their feeling that the world is not a safe place in which to travel. That must be seen in the light of 11 September, which demonstrated that key locations in the United States were exposed to serious danger as well.

I fear that the US approach to travel advice is influenced by the litigation and compensation culture, and the feeling that public bodies must guard against being shown to have been wrong and thus exposed to compensation claims. They therefore overstate or at least maximise the case in a sort of Health and Safety

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Executive way, if I can put it that way. The result can often be advice that, if taken literally, would mean that one would not go anywhere or even stay where one was. We must recognise that we are dealing with how we cope with risks in the world. Good advice is the basis for individuals to make their own sensible judgments about that.

I welcome the fact that a number of new elements have been introduced, which have been mentioned in the debate. The joint terrorism analysis centre draws together expertise in a way that should prove a more effective vehicle. Better definition of threat levels, if it is achieved, will be welcome. Some restructuring of travel advice has also been referred to. All those measures are welcome.

Bali may well not be the last terrible terrorist atrocity that we have to debate in the House. We do not know where the next one will be, but I hope and believe that some lessons have been learned, not only about the handling of tragedies—the Foreign Secretary spoke about how help can be brought to those affected—but about how the best travel advice can be obtained, and how intelligence can be brought to bear most effectively for prevention, where that is possible, as it was not in the case of Bali, for guidance to tourists and travellers, and for wisdom in the management of the risks. It has been a terrible experience for the families involved, and a salutary one for the agencies that deal with such circumstances. In making a significant criticism, we also recognise the immense value of the work that they have been doing and the many lives that have been saved by it.

6.27 pm


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