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3 Mar 2003 : Column 645—continued

Mr. Beith: I understand why the Minister does not believe that it is appropriate to publish. The appropriateness of publishing the definitions of the level of threat assessment is debatable, but, when he quotes the Committee's definition of significant, he must remember that that information was not available to anyone at the time. The link between threat assessment and travel advice is therefore crucial, because even the improved definitions will not work unless they are translated into good travel advice.

Mr. Denham: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary outlined the review and the changes to the travel advice. Of course, it is important—indeed, essential—to the process that threat assessment can be translated into useful and useable advice for members of the travelling public. A better designed threat assessment would help to address some of the anxieties that the Committee expressed in its report. Needless to say, details of the new threat assessment have been shared with Committee members in private. Doubtless the Committee will continue to keep the process under review.

Mr. Arbuthnot: The Minister may be right that the threat assessments should not be made public. However, is not the logic of that position that the Government should have asked the Intelligence and Security Committee not to make public the levels of previous threat assessments? What if the Government had undertaken a review and decided not to change them? Would not the same arguments have applied?

Mr. Denham: In my opening remarks, I praised the role of the Committee and said that such Committees are valuable to the Government—I say that as a parliamentarian as well as a Minister. The Committee, in publishing the information, may well have done something that previous Governments had not done. However, given the changed threat assessment, I believe that we should not publish it. My right hon. Friends the

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Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary also hold that view. However, we are taking a step forward by sharing the information with the Committee.

The danger is that the more refined a system of threat assessment, the more information it effectively conveys about what information is available to the Security Service and those who make the assessment. That is the judgment that has to be made. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested, the critical point is that we have to ensure that the process for translating the Security Service threat assessment into useful public advice is good, robust and clear. Of course, that is why we entirely accept that the two processes that have been discussed in the debate have to fit together well; they cannot be separated.

In passing, I agree with the hon. Member for West Suffolk in warning about the danger of an upward drift in threat assessments because there is a heightened threat generally, as it is important that we do not fall into the trap of fuelling warning fatigue by doing so.

Other developments that were mentioned in the debate include the continued enhancement of the arrangements for handling and disseminating terrorist intelligence. Experts from the intelligence and security agencies and relevant Departments will be sited in an enlarged single joint terrorist analysis centre, acting under the director general of the Security Service. That will further help to weave together existing threads of intelligence to give customer departments an even better, timely, yet coherent picture of the risks to be managed.

I finish by addressing the issue of informing the public. The Government remain committed to informing the public on all safety matters, including the risk of terrorism, but, as the Prime Minister said in his Mansion house speech last November, one of the aims of terrorists is to scare people, disrupt their normal lives, produce chaos and disorder and distort proper and sensible decision making. We must not do their job for them. However, the public have the right to have their concerns addressed and to know, as far as possible, what is being done for their protection.

The Government and the police will always try to make advice on the dangers of terrorism as clear as possible. Public safety continues to be our first priority in all decisions about public information or warnings. If a warning is necessary to protect public safety in the face of a specific and credible threat, we will issue one without hesitation, as well as giving out any further information that will help the public to respond effectively. But those are the only good reasons for issuing information associated with intelligence, since we are not in the business of educating terrorists, jeopardising intelligence operations or sources, or disrupting normal life without very good reason.

We would, for example, have to be careful about concluding—to follow the logic of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed a step further—that all bars, centres of social life and shopping centres anywhere in the world were to be avoided because they could possibly make very unpleasant targets for terrorists. So we have to treat such matters very carefully indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury welcomed the information given by the Foreign Secretary this afternoon on the improvements to the

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advice system to ensure that the public can place their trust in Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice to travellers. Such advice is intended to give reassurance, promote normality and provide information so that sensible decisions can be made. A copy of the review of travel advice to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred has been placed in the Library.

Although I suspect that those in the gap-year generation are probably more familiar with using the internet than anyone else, I am assured that, on calling into an embassy or consulate, it would be possible to obtain a hard copy of the advice as people travel around the world.

We hope that the aims that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has set out for travel advice will also apply to the new dedicated internet site, announced by the Home Secretary today, to provide straightforward UK-focused advice to the public on the terrorist threat and personal protection. Of course, appropriate advice on safety will continue to be provided to the public in advance of the launch of the new website.

I said earlier that information is an essential weapon in fighting terrorism in all its forms; it is, but it is not the only one. I cannot let this debate pass without adding my tribute and that of the Home Secretary and other ministerial colleagues to the work of the intelligence and security agencies and the many contributions that the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ make individually and collectively to the safety of our citizens both at home and abroad. Of course, that work is not limited to their intelligence contribution, but involves a range of other protective measures.

Hon. Members present today will be well aware of why the successes of the intelligence and security agencies cannot be trumpeted, but let no one doubt the real difference that they make. I am sure that the whole House joins me in thanking the individuals who make up those organisations. It would also be appropriate to acknowledge the role played by our consular staff around the world and those who have volunteered for the new rapid response teams that were announced earlier today.

I finish as I began by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, who chairs the Committee, and her colleagues for their hard work. I also thank

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those hon. Members who have spoken in this mature, constructive and thoughtful debate. If, on reflection, I have missed any specific issue that hon. Members have raised, I promise to write to them about it.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With permission, I shall put together motions 3 and 4.


Local Authorities (Health Scrutiny Functions)

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With permission, I shall put together motions 5 and 6.


Public Accounts

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Refugee Centre, Sittingbourne

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

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