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3 Mar 2003 : Column 642—continued

7.24 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): First, I put on record the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am grateful to Opposition Members for accepting that he has pressing business that meant that he was been unable to stay for the entire debate.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) and other members of the Committee for their work on the report, which has led to a positive and constructive debate. As Ministers, we are in debt to the Committee for the way in which it did its work. As has been said, at least tangentially, one of the problems faced by a Government who are dealing with matters that are necessarily confidential is that one is always prone to the allegation that things are being kept under wraps, and the smallest difference in nuance between one statement and another is taken as evidence that something is being covered up. In this case, it was enormously to the advantage of the Government, the public and the media that the Committee was able to do its work as it did, irrespective of whether we have to live with the occasional judicious criticism or balanced disagreement on interpretation. It should be a huge reassurance to everybody concerned that the Committee was able to go about its work so responsibly. I am grateful to members of the Committee for thanking my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for the co-operation that was extended to it.

I extend my sympathies and those of the Home Secretary and other ministerial colleagues to the victims, their families and friends and everyone else who suffered from the despicable acts in Bali. As all hon. Members have said, there can be no possible justification for the indiscriminate carnage that was caused. Inevitably, although not overwhelmingly, the debate has focused on the safety of the British public. That in no way diminishes the tragedy of the loss of life of 24 British citizens or the loss of life of the Australian citizens who formed the majority of those who were murdered in Bali. As the Committee reminds us in its report, nationals of some 20 countries were murdered. Many Indonesians lost their lives or were injured and have subsequently suffered severe damage to their livelihoods.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) asked me about current actions in Bali. He will understand that that is more the province of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, so I will write to him about it. I nevertheless thank him for having raised the matter.

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Whatever might have been claimed, the murders were indiscriminate as to nationality and religion. Those who did it cared not a jot for those whom they killed or maimed; the story was tragically the same as that of 11 September. I make that point not only in remembrance of all the victims, but as an illustration of the dangers and difficulties involved in combating the enemy that we face, owing to its callousness and unpredictability. Hon. Members will need no assistance in making the link to the need for the precautionary powers that were debated and renewed in this Chamber earlier today. The debate demonstrates that information is an essential weapon in fighting terrorism—information for the authorities on terrorists and their plans, so that action can be taken, and information for the public, so that they can remain safe, assist in combating terrorism and, as far as is possible, go about their normal business while being aware but alert.

I shall try to weave my responses to most of the points that were raised into my general remarks, but it might be easier if I dealt with some specific points now. The hon. Members for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) referred to human intelligence. We recognise that whatever the developments in technological methods of gathering information, human intelligence is of great importance. I hope that something that will be achieved through the expanded resources that several hon. Members mentioned is the development of our capacity to gain human intelligence and to use it effectively. I would not of course want to link that comment to any particular events, but I hope that I have given the hon. Gentlemen the reassurance that they sought.

The issue of travel insurance was raised, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) talked about it in the wider context. I was grateful to him for reassuring the House, on the basis of his experience as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, that the travel industry was co-operating well and using information responsibly. I am pleased that he did not find evidence that information was being concealed from the travelling public.

Let us consider travel advice, cancellation costs and insurance. It is important to remember that the aim of travel advice is to provide an objective picture of the risks to travellers. It is therefore important that it is given objectively, and not swayed by different parties' commercial interests. Sometimes individuals or companies press the Government to be firmer or less firm in their advice, according to the clarity that they seek. Although we are aware of those considerations, we are not influenced by them. It is the Government's clear responsibility to make an objective judgment on travel advice, and to get it right.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): Before the Minister leaves the subject of insurance, is he aware that the son of constituents of mine was among the British citizens who were murdered in Bali? It was five weeks after his marriage; his young widow narrowly survived, thanks to the Australians. I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House previously, and I recently discussed it personally with the Foreign Secretary. My murdered constituent's life assurance policy is the subject of challenge because the loss of life occurred

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through an act of terrorism. The issue has been referred to the Financial Secretary. Will the Minister assure hon. Members that the Financial Secretary will make a full report on that important issue to the House when she has completed her discussions with the insurance industry? Does he agree that it would be deplorable if, as a matter of general practice, the insurance industry began to cover life assurance policies with terrorist exclusions, thereby rendering people unable to provide financially through insurance for their next of kin in the case of a terrorist attack?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I understand that ministerial colleagues are raising those issues with the insurance industry. I cannot say when it might be possible to provide a report, or specify its form, but I shall draw his remarks, which he has made previously, to my hon. Friends' attention. I shall try to ensure that he is updated on progress when it is possible to do that.

The hon. Member for Newark made several interesting points, which went wider than I wish to go in my reply, about the challenge of living with a level of international terrorism that we have not previously experienced. He asked a specific question about airline security. Some measures were publicised before Christmas, but I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date with the latest developments.

I have had the opportunity to thank the Committee for its work; let me now deal with specific items that it covered and that have been mentioned in the debate. The Committee made several observations about intelligence, threat assessment and the intelligence and security agencies. I hope that the Committee's finding that no intelligence that could have prevented the tragic events of 12 October in Bali had been missed or mishandled will provide some reassurance and comfort to the victims' families.

The Committee also found that sufficient priority was given to collecting intelligence. It believed that the Security Service should have raised the threat assessment for Indonesia from significant to high before the Bali bombings. As the Committee acknowledges, the judgments are difficult and I was grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury drew attention to the difference between the intelligence that was available to the Committee and that available to the Security Service.

The judgment of the Security Service remains that, on the intelligence available, "significant" was the correct assessment. The Committee published its definition of significant in the report, which states:

The assessment therefore clearly suggested that Indonesia was a priority target for terrorists.

The report and the Government's response deal with the threat assessment process, which was also mentioned today. Such assessments by the Security Service are a key component in countering intended terrorist actions and informing the public. Such information includes advice to travellers. Those who make such assessments are skilled, dedicated and experienced individuals, to whom several hon. Members paid tribute. They have to make difficult judgments.

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The hon. Member for West Suffolk asked for further details of the review of the threat assessment process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury described the importance that the Committee attributed to greater gradation in the available assessments. The review to develop the process further has been completed and it will be implemented in the next few weeks. The Committee published the existing definitions of the threat levels. I do not believe that it would be appropriate to publish the new definitions, which are more detailed, and allow greater discrimination in order to be more valuable to customers who use the information, because it is important not to provide information that may be useful to terrorists by suggesting what is available to those who make threat assessments. It is important to stress that the threat assessment is not intended to be a public information guide but a tool, information and advice that is used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which offers advice through, for example, travel advice to the general public.

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