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3 Mar 2003 : Column 636—continued

6.58 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): I will not delay the House too long. It seems that most of the issues in relation to the report have been covered by previous speeches. As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is perhaps one area that I would like to introduce but, first, I have been a member of the Committee for nearly six years. After the tragedy, loss and injury that was sustained in Bali, the Committee was asked to look in great detail into what went off at Bali and to report back to the House. As was said earlier, that was done very quickly and in full co-operation with the different services: the Foreign Office and the Security Service.

If hon. Members look at the statute that brought the Committee into being, it restricts us in certain areas from looking into things. However, the Government asked us to look at such matters, and we were able to examine in close detail every intelligence report relating to this incident. I therefore hope that we can reassure the public that our reports are made after considering all the relevant issues. Indeed, the report in question noted that one of the agencies concerned was not in complete agreement with our analysis of events in Bali. Even though it creates a number of problems for our diaries and time scales, our ability to look at such issues in depth is very helpful, and I hope that the House agrees.

The Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out that the Committee had two broad criticisms of various aspects of the work relating to Bali. One of them I shall lightly skip over, but I should acknowledge that the Security Service does not agree with our analysis of the situation. That view is based on the wonderful principle of hindsight, but the threat assessment that was effectively the area of dispute between the Security Service and the Committee remains a very relevant issue. The report highlighted four factors that should have led to a higher level of threat assessment, including the grenade attack on an American diplomatic residence last September. A further point is that such developments needed to be considered in the light of the Indonesian authorities' public reluctance to deal with terrorism, and of the fact that terrorists may be more likely to attack a less well protected target. Again, such a view is based on the benefit of hindsight, but I should emphasise that at no time did the Committee find any evidence that the Bali tragedy could have been avoided.

A number of Members have touched on the travel advice issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I should like to pick up on a point made by my hon.

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Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary. The question of how to obtain travel advice was raised, along with the impact on the commercial aspect of travel—an issue that the Minister will doubtless have considered. The Committee considered the ways in which people obtain travel advice, including from the internet, from Ceefax and from the FCO's website, which has had many thousands of hits over the months, but also from travel agents.

On first considering this issue, I wanted to reassure myself that travel agents—who clearly have a commercial interest in making a profit—in no way attempt to filter advice that might otherwise prove commercially negative from their point of view. The Committee's conclusions and recommendations contain nothing negative in this regard, because we found no evidence of anything questionable in the way in which travel agents disseminate information on FCO travel advice. The Committee's report states:

I point that out simply to reassure people that they are in no way being disadvantaged in terms of travel advice, and that commercial decisions are not preventing the giving of good advice before they travel or during their journeys, should the situation change.

It was said earlier that we could follow the example of some other countries and issue travel warnings, but that others such as Israel have none whatsoever. However, in some cases such warnings are more to do with ensuring that litigation does not follow anything that might happen while abroad, rather than with giving advice so that, on the basis of it, people can make up their own minds as to whether to travel or to leave a particular place. Although the Committee did not study what happens in other parts of the world in any great depth, it became clear during our conversations that this country's system is in many senses much better than some others'. I have confidence in our existing system, so the broad criticisms that were made are in no way criticisms of the bulk of the work done in interpreting information gathered by the intelligence agencies, or of how travel advice and more specific advice is given to the FCO.

As I said earlier to the Minister, although such an investigation is not welcome in the aftermath of the Bali tragedy, I hope that it has given this House and the public confidence in respect of matters that only we are allowed to look into, given that we work inside the ring of secrecy, under the terms of official secrets legislation. I hope that the investigation has given them confidence that the brave men and women who work in our intelligence agencies are acting in the interests of the greater public good. We shall continue to support them, but it is clear that, from time to time, our reports will

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highlight areas of criticism. However, I hope that, in general, those agencies have the support not just of our Committee, which worked closely with them, but of this House and of the general public.

7.07 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As so often, this House takes great care when subjects as serious as terrorist atrocities are being debated, and this debate has been no exception. The Foreign Secretary—who, for reasons that I understand entirely, is away on other duties—set out the Government's position at the beginning of the debate. It is fair to say that things are not easy for any Cabinet Minister when a Committee of this House produces a somewhat critical report, and I shall turn a little later to the comments of a number of distinguished members of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I thought that the Foreign Secretary was very balanced in his approach to the fairly serious criticisms from members of the ISC. However, as many of them subsequently confirmed, they were making specific criticisms, rather than wholesale criticisms of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the intelligence services or the bulk of the work that they do. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) rightly said, we want to add to the praise offered for the work done by the FCO throughout the world—and by those based in the FCO in London—and to the incredibly important work done by our intelligence services. That point was highlighted in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—a contribution based on his considerable military experience before entering this House.

In response to the Foreign Secretary's balanced approach, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk reinforced the condolences offered to the families of all who were affected by this terrible terrorist atrocity, but he also asked a number of specific questions. Such concerns are shared by our shadow Foreign Office team and by our Home Office team, for which I have the honour of being shadow spokesman on national security issues. My hon. Friend said that he hoped that in the wind-up, the Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), could confirm his assessment of the importance of human intelligence. Indeed, that point was stressed by several other Members on both sides of the House, but in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark.

We want to hear from the Minister that both the Home Office and the Foreign Office are aware of the need to give human intelligence the proper emphasis in Government assessments of security matters in the future. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk pointed out that several of our colleagues have asked for the whole matter of intelligence assessment of levels of threat to be more graded and more sensitive. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the Government's response to the ISC's report refers to the security services review, which will consider how to achieve greater definition, and that is welcome. We have heard subsequently from the Chairman of the ISC and other members of it that some further changes have been made, and we would be grateful if the Minister clarified the matter when he winds up.

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My hon. Friend also pointed out that the Foreign Office website should carry links to the travel advice pages of other key western countries, such as the United States and Australia. We are grateful that the Foreign Secretary has responded to my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary that he has accepted and implemented the suggestion. However, I have one warning to give. We have accepted in this important debate that website and e-mail information is crucial—many British expatriates use the internet extensively—but I hope that travel advice will not be given only on the internet. Not all of those who wish to travel abroad use computers. Not all people, especially young students, have access to the internet—some of them cannot afford it. Also, because people travel from country to country, it might be important that a young British traveller could call in to any Foreign Office post anywhere in the world and get a hard copy of the travel advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk pointed out, the gap-year phenomenon has grown—certainly since my time at university, 25 years ago—and so many young Britons now travel abroad and need access to updated advice as they travel. I hope that the Minister will confirm that hard copy will be made available.

My hon. Friend also said that he hoped that the Minister would be able to give us a specific assessment of the impact of FCO travel advice on the validity of travel insurance claims for holidays cancelled in response to a heightened threat level. I hope that the Minister will specifically address that point, but I will understand if he has to write to my hon. Friend. If the Minister puts his response in writing, I hope that he will place a copy in the Library. British citizens may change their holiday plans if FCO advice describes a heightened threat assessment. If they do so, it would be a shame if their travel insurance were invalidated.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of whether rapid response teams will all be London based or whether in future some of them might be based in large regional posts. The Foreign Secretary helpfully intervened to explain that the rapid response teams created in the aftermath of Bali will be based in London, but they will be supplemented with people from regional posts. I hope that the Government will keep the matter under review, because some countries with very large diplomatic posts could benefit from a rapid response team. For example, a team based in Australia, which is a long way from London, would have been much closer to Bali.

Many of us have had some contact with families who lost loved ones in Bali. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), for example, told me that a friend of a friend was a victim of the Bali bombing. Those of us who are interested in sport were particularly affected by the fact that so many of the young adult victims were members of sports clubs in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Only a month before the Bali bomb I stood outside the Singapore cricket club, and the victims included some members of the rugby section of that club. Those of us who have been on overseas sports tours know the devastating effect that the loss of several members of a small sports club can have on a local community. I had a friend at university who was murdered by the IRA in the Harrods bombing, and I know that anyone who knows a victim of terrorism is affected by it and remembers it for the rest of their life.

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The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), the distinguished Chairman of the ISC, led the House through the Committee's report and its experience of considering all the issues. She rightly paid tribute to the Foreign Secretary and his advisers for giving the Committee full access to all the relevant papers. She confirmed that they contained nothing about a specific attack on Bali. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made the point in an intervention—he later expanded on it in his speech—about the most likely location in Indonesia for an attack on western interests. There was a difference of view between members of the Committee about how significant that point was, but it deserves consideration when we learn the lessons from that terrible experience.

The right hon. Lady, in an effective analysis, made the point that the Committee saw sequentially on one day all the intelligence related to the region. She rightly made the point that that is not how it happens in reality for those in the FCO or the intelligence community who have the difficult task of analysing that intelligence. As so many hon. Members have pointed out, there is a danger in using 20:20 hindsight. The right hon. Lady, having made that allowance, went on to emphasise the Committee's conclusion that the threat level was not sufficiently differentiated between significant and high. She acknowledged that the definitions had been reworked and was pleased that matters were improving. She paid tribute to the creation of the joint terrorism advice centre, which she felt would improve matters, but she drew attention to paragraph 7 of the Government's response to the Committee's report which said that the information given to expatriate Britons in Indonesia was not as clear as the Foreign Office travel advice given to those about to travel to Bali.

The right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), who is also a member of the Committee, intervened to make the important point about the dangers of using word processors to lift complete paragraphs from previous texts. To someone taking a quick look at the information, it might look as if it had not changed. That is a valid point because it happens all the time, in this sensitive area and in so many others. The Chairman rightly agreed with her hon. Friend. She made the point that sometimes it is better if someone outside the direct operation of the daily revision of the advice is asked to take a fresh look at it. Someone from outside can see whether a wrong impression is given, as perhaps happened with the Foreign Office advice on that occasion.

Several other hon. Members spoke powerfully, including as so often, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who spoke from his extensive experience on the Committee and in the House. He talked about his observations, shortly after the tragedy, of the grief felt in Australia. It is important for all of us to recognise that however terrible we felt the attack to be—there were victims from the UK—it was Australia that suffered the most, and the right hon. Gentleman stressed that point. He rightly said that terrorism is the most cowardly form of attack and that there had been a failure of judgment in that the threat advice—the warning—should have concentrated on Bali, given its nature in terms of the concentration of young foreign holidaymakers.

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The right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, talked about his Committee's responsibility to scrutinise Foreign Office travel advice. He mentioned the need to use plain English in that advice and spoke about the work of his Committee on matters such as rapid response teams. I am sure that hon. Members are, as always, grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for sharing his expertise as Chairman of the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark, who speaks from his extensive military experience prior to his election here, said that he has done nine tours in Ulster—experience that is unparalleled among Members of this House—including time spent on intelligence matters. He stressed that the terrorists' aim is to terrify but that, happily, the mature western democracies that are trying to match the threat are not terrified. He also emphasised that terrorists are still trying to attack the UK, and rightly paid tribute to the work that our security services are doing to detect and deter the threat and to protect all law-abiding citizens of this country. In a telling naval phrase, he said that we are standing into danger at present. He asked the Minister to confirm that news and intelligence must be handled sensitively and consistently, drawing attention to problems such as the mixed messages that were given out about Heathrow about two weeks ago, which my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, and I were concerned about. I know that lessons will have been learned from that, even if the Minister is not prepared to concede that anything went wrong. A great deal of confusion was created by statements about threat levels being made, then withdrawn. I hope that that will not happen again.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), another distinguished member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Newark to make an important point based on his experience of considering such issues as a member of the Committee.

The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who has been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee for six years, said that he could see that our system was better than the system in some other countries, and although he entirely supported what his Committee said in its conclusions, he did not want to make any criticism of the way in which much of the work is done. I hope that I have made it clear that Conservative Members share his view that we ought to praise all the work that is done by diplomatic posts around the world and by our intelligence services, while hoping that lessons will be learned from one or two aspects that did not go quite right on this occasion.

Finally, will the Minister say a word or two about what is happening in Bali now? The various reports about the aftermath say that a huge amount of funding has been provided, particularly by the United States, to help the Indonesian Government with counter-terrorism measures and security, and I have no doubt that the UK is playing its part. Some hon. Members tend to speak in this Chamber from a viscerally anti-

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American viewpoint. If they looked at the reports on the amount of American funding in the aftermath of the Bali bomb, they might have a more positive view of the way in which America is shouldering its responsibilities to ensure worldwide peace and security. I hope that the Minister is able to say that this country will provide a lot more funding for that purpose. British taxpayers might be happier for their money to be spent on that than on, to cite a bizarre example, funding for gender equality programmes. That is not quite the sort of thing that we should be spending money on when there are British citizens to be protected across the world.

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