House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
DEFENCE AND HOME AFFAIRS COMMITTEES
Tuesday 2 March 2004
MR DAVID BLUNKETT, MP, MR ROBERT WHALLEY, SIR DAVID OMAND
and MS CHERYL PLUMRIDGE
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Defence and Home Affairs Committees
on Tuesday 2 March 2004
Mr Bruce George, in the Chair
Mr Crispin Blunt
Mr David Cameron
Mrs Janet Dean
Mr Gwyn Prosser
Mr Marsha Singh
Mr John Taylor
Mr Peter Viggers
Witnesses: Rt Hon David Blunkett, a Member of the House, Home Secretary, Mr Robert Whalley, Director of Counter-Terrorism, Home Office, Sir David Omand, KCB, Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and Permanent Secretary and Ms Cheryl Plumridge, Director Capabilities, Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Cabinet Office, examined.
Q1 Chairman: Secretary of State and colleagues, most of whom are well known certainly to the Defence Committee, and I suspect to the Home Affairs Select Committee too, welcome to today's joint meeting of Defence and Home Affairs. This session has taken a little longer to organise than we would have liked, we are delighted that you have agreed to it and you have brought such a very strong team with you. It may not be unique for two committees to hold a joint session but it is pretty unusual. We are taking evidence with the wide issues that we wish to discuss with you today. These are your responsibilities, however, your Department is joined in this process of decision-making by the Cabinet Office, MoD, et cetera et cetera. As you know Home Secretary the Defence Committee published a substantial report on defence and security in the United Kingdom in July 2002 and we continue to be actively interested in the subject, as Sir David knows very well. I must pass John Denham's apologies to you for his unavoidable absence today. We have a lot of questions to ask and two hours to ask them in, my mathematics has worked out that it will be five minutes per Member of Parliament and the hatchet will fall plus or minus five minutes. Home Secretary perhaps you would like to introduce your team and then we can begin questioning.
Mr Blunkett: As you know David is in overall charge now in relation to the structures from the Cabinet Office, overseeing the Cabinet Committees that deal with these issues. Bob Whalley is Head of Terrorism Directorate and Cheryl Plumridge from the Cabinet Office for civil contingencies.
Chairman: Thank you very much. The first couple of questions are from Marsha Singh.
Q2 Mr Singh: Home Secretary, how will you asses the general threat to security in the United Kingdom from international terrorism? In your assessment are we safer now post Afghanistan and Iraq or more at risk?
Mr Blunkett: I set out last Wednesday, including quoting from the Director General of the Security Service the continuing on‑going threat to the United Kingdom and I demonstrated from the terrible tragedy in Bali all of the way through to Istanbul when over 50 people were killed, including our Consular General and many of his staff, that we faced a continuing threat. That threat has not diminished. The nature of the threat was different to anything we had experienced before and that required a different response. I set out in the discussion paper that we published along with our reply to the Newton Inquiry and to Lord Carlisle's review our challenge is really for all of us is to take a look at the nature of what we face and the way in which we can react, our own views being that security and intelligence is our best protector. Of course as part of the contest interventions programme we have linked prevention with pursuant of the terrorists, with the protection of the public at home and with the preparedness for any consequences. We are trying to ensure those four key pillars are moulded together.
Q3 Mr Singh: I think the threat to United Kingdom interests abroad is all too clear but in terms of the United Kingdom what is your thinking about the terrorist capacity to introduce weapons of mass destruction on United Kingdom soil?
Mr Blunkett: I think we need to be very careful about the nature of the definition we make. There is an on‑going international debate as to what constitutes a weapon of mass destruction. Over the last two and a half years we have had discussions ranging from what constitutes a dirty bomb through to what in terms of chemical or biological attack would constitute something more than we have been threatened with in past. I would not use the term "weapons of mass destruction" in terms of the internal capacity but part of our programme and part of the investment we have been putting in is precisely to prevent the accumulation of or the ability to be able to trigger the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear capacity to create that kind of reaction. We could get into esoteric definitions, Chairman, we are dealing primarily here with the issue of preventing people being able to develop the capacity here in Britain whilst dealing with the nature of international terrorism which is that it is by its very nature global and it is inter-linked networks rather than a traditional, formal military attack.
Q4 Mr Singh: Home Secretary you have said in the past we have damaged some of al‑Qaeda's capability, to what extent have we damaged it and are there any other terrorist groups we need to know about because al-Qaeda seems to be the one that everybody focuses on, have they spawned other groups or cells?
Mr Blunkett: The Anti‑Terrorism Crime and Security Act, particularly Part IV, was predicated on the issue of the development of al-Qaeda and its lose associates and networks, including those who are prepared to raise funds for or facilitate those who are more directly engaged with threatening our life and liberty. The disruption of the Taliban by the removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan clearly made an enormous difference given that the Taliban were using Afghan soil not merely for training but for preparing and facilitating. I included in the documents last Wednesday continuing threats issued by Osama bin Laden in terms of tapes of videos that have been issued. There is obviously a difference between being able to use a country and the regime in the country as the foundations and as the cover for your activities as opposed to having to be in the, which is a presumption that is being made, in the mountainous areas on the border of Pakistan. That has obviously disrupted the capacity but not the capability.
Q5 Mr Singh: Is there any evidence of fund‑raising for terror in the United Kingdom and if there is have we had any success in putting a stop to it?
Mr Blunkett: As you know there are two different strands, one through the United Nations and one through our domestic legislation and we have been involved not merely in terms of disruption of those who were directly involved with terror groups but those who were using the bureaus and the sophisticated transfer arrangements to get money out of the country. It is difficult in open session to talk about the related nature between those who are picked up and tried for criminal activity and their perceived involvement with the terrorist network. I would be circumspect in terms of dealing with that if you will forgive me.
Chairman: Thank you. We have a couple of questions on Central Government co‑ordination, the first in this section is Crispin Blunt.
Q6 Mr Blunt: Home Secretary, if can I take you back to Marsha's first question briefly and I apologise if I am asking you to repeat something you have already said in a different forum, are we safer in the United Kingdom after military operations in Afghanistan? Are we safer in the United Kingdom after military operations in Iraq? Is the answer to those two questions different and if so will you explain why?
Mr Blunkett: I think the answer is different. I do not intend this afternoon as a deliberate act of policy to start a debate round the situation and the decisions we took over Iraq except to say that the primary concern related to the non-implementation of 1441 not the related but central issue of the use of a rouge state and the ability of those working for and alongside al‑Qaeda to be able to draw on the disruption and the disfunctionality that is caused by the continuance of someone like Saddam Hussein in power. The Afghan situation is much more directly related for the reason I gave a moment ago, namely they were providing cover, succour and support from the Taliban regime and for the development and training and preparations. I do not believe in terms of the threat to us in the United Kingdom - and I draw on the Director General of the Security Services advice for this - that the threat has diminished. I believe that in terms of the ability of the international community to be able to hunt down and to be able to disrupt the operation of the network we are in a better position post the removal of the Taliban for the reasons I gave a moment ago.
Q7 Mr Blunt: Thank you. In addressing that undiminished threat how do you ensure that you are able to exert clear political authority and command over the wide range of public organisations which report to several different government departments?
Mr Blunkett: The operation of the new structure under the Committee DOP(IT) and the two sub-committees that I chair under that are designed primarily to co-ordinate to ensure co-operation and to have a clear direction and prioritisation so that we develop a matrix that allows us to weigh the threat, weigh the allocation of resources and ensure that where there are overlaps they are complimentary rather than contradictory and as we have done with the four pillars that I spelt out and with the programmes that we have laid out, the resilience programmes, that we can actually ensure that we are genuinely prepared and we are working together. We have demonstrated that in terms of exercises such as the one that we undertook at Bank tube station on 7 September last year.
Q8 Mr Blunt: Would you describe homeland security as a discrete area of work or does it come closer to being an attitude of mind or an approach that runs through everything that Government does?
Mr Blunkett: I do not believe it is discrete operation but I would put it as more than an attitude of mind. I think it is a strand running through the activities that are directly related, whether it is in terms of what we are dealing with directly or the threat from CPRN or the preparedness we have to undertake in relation to ambulance, fire, the co‑ordination of local and regional activity which, of course, is now being underpinned by the new Bill and in the way which the Ministry of Defence have established their new regional reactive capacity.
Q9 Mr Blunt: How much of your time do you spend on homeland security issues?
Mr Blunkett: On combined homeland security and counter‑terrorism it obviously varies depending on the nature of the perceived threats and the reports from the security intelligence services. When there are major concerns I am spending a very substantial part of the week on it. I would normally spend about 20% of my time on a regular basis on resilience and counter‑terrorism because the two go hand in hand depending on the nature of the threat. We are obviously responding in terms of planning ahead.
Q10 Mr Cameron: I just want to pursue this accountability point, Sir David Omand is the only Permanent Secretary really who does not work to one secretary of state or to any single junior minister, every Government department works on the principle that there is a permanent secretary, a minister of state and a secretary of state accountable to Parliament, why is it not necessary in this area?
Mr Blunkett: Sir David Omand works for the Prime Minister. Prior to June 2001 those functions of the Cabinet Secretary were split and enhanced firstly to take account of the events of 2000 in terms of the fuel dispute and secondly in terms of the lessons to be learned and the importance of co-ordination arising out of the events of foot and mouth disease outbreak. Subsequent to June 2001 the very substantial lessons of enhancement that were necessary post September 11, and obviously none of us would have been able to foresee the necessities arising from that. We have clearly enhanced both our co-ordination and capability. As the Prime Minister has overall direction in relation to the security and intelligence services and as this activity relates directly to that, namely the resilience that backs it up, the elements of the four pillars that back that up, it has been sensible to do it in this way. We would have done it another way if we thought it was more sensible.
Q11 Mr Cameron: In order to co-ordinate clearly Sir David has to look at things that the Home Office does and the Department of Health does and other departments do and I remember asking you about the Drugs Tsar and why he was not appropriate and things should be repatriated to the Home Office, what is the difference between this and the Drugs Tsar situation?
Mr Blunkett: The Drugs Tsar was dealing with drugs. Here we are dealing with the whole range of counter-terrorism, including the preventive elements of security intelligence plus the international elements. David Omand was in the States last week - he makes more regular visits that select committees do - and he was engaged not simply with Tom Ridge and the homeland security people but with General John Gordon working directly to the President and of course the overlap with Condoleezza Rice. There is an absolute read-over here, which is not the same as one person dealing with the domestic agenda and simply co-ordinating the activities of mainly three departments.
Sir David Omand: It may be helpful if I just add it is a traditional role of the Cabinet Office to assist in the co-ordination of government. I see the Cabinet Office as having two main roles, supporting the Prime Minister in leading the government and supporting the government effectively in the effective discharge of their business particularly through the committees that the Home Secretary has referred to. I see no difficulty at all being in the centre of government supporting the Cabinet Committee structure and the work and ensuring that the Prime Minister is in a position to lead on this issue.
Q12 Mr Cameron: How does the accountability work? Heaven forbid Sir David were to make a mistake who is responsible, is it the Prime Minister who is responsible to Parliament or because some of what he does does cover Home Office territory is it your responsibility?
Mr Blunkett: If we deliberated in either of the sub committees which I chair and we had made a decision then I would be held to account by Parliament for the decisions of those committees. As you will appreciate I sleep less well at night than I did three years ago. The seriousness of the issues cannot be underestimated. It is necessary for a Cabinet minister to hold those responsibilities where individuals have taken decisions outside the remit of the Cabinet Committees and they relate specifically to their area of work they would carry the responsibility themselves, which seems to us not only to be sensible in terms of people holding and having to account for themselves in terms of their responsibility but being clear in the decisions they take that is not to be passed over to somebody else. The worst situation would be if a senior Cabinet colleague made a decision in their area which related to resilience or to the issues we are discussing here this afternoon and they knew they were not to be held to account for them that would change the nature of their relationship to the constitution but also to myself as chair of the appropriate Cabinet committee. We are trying to be sensible about this, whether it is to do with health, whether it is to do with transport, whether it is to do with policing each of us carry a responsibility on a day to day basis. Where that responsibility has being brought together and decisions have been taken through the Cabinet structure then I would have to carry that responsibility.
Q13 Mr Cameron: From the outside the list of committee's looks quite complex, you say that you have ministerial responsibility and Sir David is really responsible through the Prime Minister, do you keep it under review? The Americans have gone for homeland security and the Defence Committee seem to suggest that having one minister responsible for this area was worth looking at, do you keep this under review?
Mr Blunkett: We do. The Defence Committee took a particular view, the Science and Technology Committee view took another view, and the Home Affairs are joining with you today and have not expressed a view. The Government as a whole felt that it was important to react in our circumstances where we have a different security and policing structure to the United States and where we felt that creating a whole new superstructure and department from scratch and funnelling resources and responsibility through that would be disruptive to the long tried work that we have undertaken, not least in the 30 years prior to the Good Friday Agreement where we were threatened on a monthly basis by terror generated from Ireland on the mainland of Britain. Resilience as well as counter-terrorism measures were part and parcel of securing our well-being.
Sir David Omand: Can I just add this would not be the first area of national life where our way of doing things is better appreciated abroad perhaps than it is at home. I have a continual stream of visitors from overseas coming to see how we do it. I have to say without being complacent about it, because we are always looking for ways to improve, our ability to co-ordinate across Government is second to none.
Q14 Chairman: There was no criticism of you, Home Secretary, whatsoever in this, just the belief that you were over-burdened with other issues and that somebody who was primarily exclusively focusing on these issues might be an alternative model. It is quite clear that is not going to happen.
Mr Blunkett: I assure you I did not take it personally. There are days when even those who are less burdened feel over-burdened and today I feel fine.
Q15 Chairman: It is bit early to say that!
Mr Blunkett: I thought I would get it in early. No politician worth their salt actually confesses to feeling over-burdened. Can I just say that I think the nature of responsibilities for internal security and the nature of the services for the counter-terrorism branch SO13 and of general policing and of organised crime led to a logical understanding that whoever the Home Secretary was it was sensible for them to take the lead on those issues. That was reinforced by our experience in the fuel crisis where it was important to establish that there was somebody who could pull the security and policing elements together without engaging in prolonged discussion with those who did not have responsibility for those areas.
Chairman: Thank you.
Q16 Mr Viggers: I would like to ask about the geographical aspects of control and co-ordination, does the threat to central London dominate planning?
Mr Blunkett: It forms an enormous amount of time and energy in that I have ministers working under me as part of the structure that I described. Nick Raynsford as the Minister for London has played a key role in being able to pull people together, including the 44,000 businesses in London we have communication with and who we provide advice to that work through me in terms of the role and advice and support of the Metropolitan Police and of course the role that you are familiar with in terms of preparedness were there to be an attack particularly with the work that was developed and is now being carried forward by the Minister of State in the Home Office Bev Hughes on CBRM and it gives us the capacity to be able to response to that very quickly and effectively.
Q17 Mr Viggers: Thank you.
Mr Blunkett: We have had good co-operation from the Mayor's Office and from other institutions in London which has been very helpful.
Q18 Mr Viggers: The areas in the country, the regions, the counties, the police force areas, health authority boundaries and emergency service areas are not always consistent, how do you ensure organisational consistency and clarity across the country for the purposes of civil contingency?
Mr Blunkett: The development of the structures at a regional level have been substantially enhanced, as you will be aware, not least in terms of the Reaction Force that has now been put in place and is available and was completed by the end of December. We now have in place the practicalities, that is the issue of training, the necessary equipment, including appropriate protection suits and decontamination units, the necessary organisation under traditional civil defence and of course the new bill will enhance that and provide greater clarity and update the 1920 Act and the 1948 Act.
Q19 Mr Viggers: Does this consistency apply across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well?
Mr Blunkett: We have drawn the devolved administrations into the Cabinet structure and into the practical, administrative co-ordination. I am pleased that there has been for very good reason very, very good co-operation from them in planning and responding to their elements of the overall plan.
Sir David Omand: Can I just add to that as a result of hard work over the last few years we now have a set of boundaries for the various services, including the Armed Forces, which are coterminous so that police areas do now nest within government regions and the military structure now fits alongside that. Compared to the situation that existed a few years ago it is now very much simpler.
Q20 Mr Viggers: In areas of health and education there is an independent inspectorate, I think there is not such an independent inspectorate in the field of security, how do you ensure consistency?
Mr Blunkett: The work that Sir David and his colleagues are doing laying out the 17 capability work-streams that have been developed, reporting back to the appropriate subcommittee, in this case the Resilience Committee of the Cabinet is in itself a continuing, monitoring exercise. Obviously to have a totally independent inspectorate of your work would be in many ways an anachronism. Where there are underpinning activities within departmental responsibilities the normal inspectorate process would apply for instance in relation to laboratories and things of that sort, would it not? We are have having those checked. One of the things we did post 11 September was give the police a specific duty in some areas to monitor and check the preparedness and the security of those installations.
Q21 Mr Viggers: Can you tell us how arrangements would work across regional boundaries in the event of a major attack? Are there arrangements for co-ordination across boundaries in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack?
Mr Blunkett: Yes, there are but I am not going to spell them out this afternoon. I am happy for Bob who is the Director of Counter-Terrorism who advises me on what is dangerous and what is not to comment on that.
Mr Whalley: The main point here is that the police are in the lead and they will co-ordinate the activity of the other emergency services and they will do so increasingly, as Sir David has said, on a regional basis. They can call upon the assets of other police forces to help them with that and of course if they need to they can call upon military assets with Government approval and elsewhere. There is a very flexible structure to give the right sort of regional resilience.
Q22 Janet Anderson: Home Secretary, could we turn to the question of the funding arrangements for counter-terrorism and civil contingencies specifically in respect of the amounts allocated to London compared with other parts of the country? In the inquiry by the Defence Committee into the Draft Civil Contingencies Bill the Hampshire Chief Constable argued that there should be greater transparency in the funding for counter-terrorism and contingencies so that regions outside London could see the basis upon which funding decisions are made. How would you respond to this?
Mr Blunkett: I think there is a balance to be struck in up-front acknowledgement of the funding streams through departmental votes. We announced the overall increase of £330 million. We then worked with departments on the most appropriate prioritisation in terms of, for instance, the purchase of equipment, decontamination, training and the like within the bounds of not actually declaring where it is in very specific terms that you expect the attack to come and providing information that would give the weak points publicly for those who would attack us. There has to be a reasonable understanding, particularly through the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Fire Officers, of what has been done and why. I am not entirely sure why the Chief Constable of Hampshire felt he could not engage with that more readily inside the system because the Association of Chief Police Officers are heavily engaged in all our work, including being represented on the Cabinet committees.
Q23 Chairman: Following on Janet's question, Secretary of State, local authorities around the country are under financial pressures. New legislation and the events of post-911 have imposed additional duties upon them and a number of them are complaining that they have additional responsibilities without the commensurate increase of resources to allow them to do what central government and parliament has asked them to do. I would like you to comment on this. Are you providing sufficient dosh for them to be able to reassure our constituents that they have the tools to do the job?
Mr Blunkett: Yes, I am. You will recall that there was a programme in the early summer of 2001 which would have led to a small reduction in funding which was reversed. The additional £330 million in substantial part assists local government because, whilst great proportions of this go through fire, ambulance and related services, it is also very clear that local government itself is assisted. We are not in this instance talking about constructing Second World War shelters so we are asking local government to work in tandem with those agencies to ensure that what they are doing is complementary to and draws down on the resources and the work. Do you want to comment on it, David?
Sir David Omand: Just to observe that the Bill itself will not require a step change in the activities of the emergency services and there has been significant funding made available for the modernisation of those services. The Bill itself will not directly add to those responsibilities. The total expenditure by local authorities on this area is obviously something that we keep a very careful eye on and were we aware of significant problems then we obviously would have to bring them to the attention of ministers collectively.
Q24 Chairman: I hope the leaders of the councils will listen to this debate and will send their letters to David Blunkett or Sir David Omand and say, "Well, we need some more money". I hope you are right, Sir David, but there is such a differential in quality between local authorities and the local emergency planning systems that I am sure there is a big backlog to be caught up with for all those local units that have not been performing as well as they should.
Mr Blunkett: A big effort has gone in to ensure training for emergency planning officers and we have had very good feedback from the key representatives of that body.
Sir David Omand: The other point I want to make, of course, is that this is something we talk to the Local Government Association about all the time, and we will continue to do so as the Bill goes through the House and local authorities begin to gear up for the organisational changes that the Bill will bring.
Mr Blunkett: It is helpful that it is Sir David who has given that pledge, not me, because he can have conversations with the Deputy Prime Minister without me copping the backwash.
Q25 Chairman: I have a great interest in the private security industry. Until your department authorised new legislation I think it was only Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Georgia that had an unregulated private security industry, so we are making great progress. I believe the good parts of the industry are ready to participate. They are very enthusiastic and I think the Metropolitan Police had a project called Unicorn which I think has been published but, if not, it has been fairly widely circulated. Do you have any comments, Home Secretary, as to whether you see any enhanced role for the private security industry because if there were some catastrophic failure I am absolutely certain that the private security industry could provide thousands of personnel to assist the emergency services in tasks that they would be quite capable of doing? Do you have any idea at this stage of (a) whether you want to do that and bring them more into the process, and (b) if you do, do you have much idea at this stage as to what you might like them to do?
Mr Blunkett: First, I do, and I think there is a broader role here. Whilst, obviously, for this afternoon's discussion the issue of counter-terrorism and resilience is uppermost, it blends well with the idea of those who are involved in the security industry business being properly trained and accredited through the new agency which takes effect from April to be in a broader sense the eyes and ears of the community in terms of policing, in terms of civil disturbance, in terms of anti-social behaviour. The reason the two go together is that being alert, surveilling, watching out for difficulties, actually being able to report those, including being able to quickly use the hot line, which is available and is important for people to know about, makes good sense. The establishment of the agency has been the first priority, obviously, getting the structure in place and the methods of proper accreditation. I think we need to move rapidly and I am pleased that the acting chair of the organisation is keen to co-operate in moving to that next stage. It fits in well with the new drive to bring about greater numbers of and a greater role for special constables as well, which I also think could flow from the SIA's activities and would complement what is now taking place with the retail industry in London, which is the release from work for training and for some of the activities of special constables which I think has a lot going for it.
Q26 Chairman: My last question is a part of the second question I asked. It is quite obvious where statutory authority lies in ordering evacuation of a building in the event of fire or suspected fire. It has been put to me quite frequently that should there be a terrorist threat (which may not involve fire) there is not a statutory obligation and the lines of communication are rather blurred. The problem might be that a head of security or the facilities manager might be aware of a threat and may or may not order an evacuation. If he orders an evacuation and there is no threat then he will be liable to be sued by some financial company operating within premises within his facility's control and the reverse also could take place: if there was a disaster and no evacuation had been ordered, then the company or the security industry operative himself or herself would be vulnerable. Is there any intention to clarify this potential confusion in order to ensure that should there be a threat those responsible for calling for an evacuation - and it may not be the police - have (a) the legal authority and (b) the legal cover in some way should they call it incorrectly?
Mr Blunkett: There are two areas here, are there not, Chairman? There is one where there is an immediate triggering of a threat, which we experienced with the IRA, in terms of a phone call, a moment or two's warning, in which the police receiving that warning or intelligence or being aware of an incident triggered through the appropriate business or responsible persons the immediate evacuation of those premises. Regrettably, we saw that operated over about 30 years at the end of the last century on a number of occasions, sometimes with success in terms of getting people out in time, sometimes not. Where there is a forewarning or a preparedness through security and intelligence advice, then there would be very clear lines of responsibility. Let me just use one example that is in the public arena, which was the Security Service's well-founded belief that there was likely to be an attack on Heathrow and the surrounding area, in which case the head of SO13 made a report, including to the Prime Minister, myself and other Cabinet Ministers. The decision was taken consequent on that that we would authorise the defence forces to be drawn in at the behest of the operational decision of the head of SO13, and that those who are involved in rapid reaction and special forces would be on standby. Those lines of decision making were very clear. The operational action had to rest with the head of SO13 rather than with politicians. We explained this at the time because there is some confusion about that, but there was in my view no difficulty of misunderstanding who was in charge and where the lines of responsibility lay. There is a third issue which is, does someone get sued if the wrong decision is taken? I am pleased to say that I am not a lawyer but the reasonable duty of care of a person having acted in a responsible and reasonable fashion would, of course, be the issue. I am not aware that there is the possibility of someone suing in these circumstances. Are you, David?
Sir David Omand: No, and it is not an issue that has ever been raised with me, I have to say, by security directors and security managers in the facilities I have visited. The advice we always give is that if there is an emergency or an incident the emergency services, particularly the police, will be best placed to decide what action to take. If someone who is in a position of authority in a commercial premise believes reasonably in advance of such advice that action is necessary I find it very hard to see how a case could be mounted if somebody acts reasonably in those circumstances.
Q27 Chairman: Sir David, it would be very difficult for you to decline my kind invitation to bring along two or three people who have argued very persuasively to see if they could just waft over to you that this issue is rather more complicated than perhaps it might initially have been perceived to be. If that is okay I would be delighted.
Sir David Omand: Obviously, we are very happy to be in receipt of all suggestions, ideas and views and the more clarity we can bring to this area the better.
Chairman: I will write to you shortly if I may.
Q28 David Winnick: Home Secretary, being the sort of country we are and hopefully always will be, there is continued controversy about people being detained under Part IV of the 2001 Act. The critics, of whom I am not one, claim that this is totally unnecessary, undesirable and in fact in defiance of British justice. Do you have anything to say further on what you have said in the House of Commons very recently?
Mr Blunkett: No, I do not, which is not very helpful to you. Would you like me to exemplify anything that I have said?
Q29 David Winnick: Perhaps I can put it this way, Home Secretary. Do you feel there is any possibility that there will be any change in the powers which you have and which are being used at the moment (I think 14 are being detained) in the foreseeable future?
Q30 Mr Blunkett: No, and there could not be whilst we, as we did last week on the Thursday subsequent to the major debate in the Commons, request Parliament to renew Part IV of the Act. By the very nature of the request to Parliament in renewing that power and the derogation that goes with it, the assumptions that are made underpinning that decision require us to be clear that there is no alternative. What I said last week was that it is absolutely crucial that those who wish to see alternative routes, including for lower level activity - and we discussed in what I thought was an excellent, measured debate last Wednesday the whole issue of questions around those who are associated with this, as with the French wrongdoers legislation, and with the ideas around Lord Carlile's preparatory to terrorism - should come forward and we would be very receptive to listening to what could be done. We had a very particular set of circumstances where we were using immigration powers to remove those non-conducive to the public good. We could not remove them after certification because the threat to their life and torture was, under the Human Rights Act and the ECHR, likely to be infringed, and therefore we had to make a decision as to how to deal with the process of determining whether they should be held in custody and the process (as you know but I will repeat it because I think it is important to get it across) is that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, agreed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament in 1997, was enhanced to a superior court of record to be chaired by a High Court judge with the right of appeal to the Appeal Court with access by those held to lawyers with special advocates where the evidence being presented was of such a delicate and difficult nature that it would have put the resources and the operation of the Security Service at risk. Those decisions on certification, that SIAC process, has been challenged, has been reviewed and has been agreed as having been carried out fairly and generically, having been put in place properly and fairly, and that is why, difficult as they are, we stand by those decisions.
Q31 David Winnick: During the debate which took place last week, Home Secretary, one of our colleagues, Kevin McNamara, stated that he had applied to visit the people in Belmarsh and the Director of Prison Services had replied no. Do you have any views? Do you feel it is entirely a matter for the Director or is this a matter you are willing to consider again?
Mr Blunkett: I think we would always be prepared to consider people putting in very specific requests for a specific purpose, but I have just to put the backcloth to this, that we have had a number of organised monitoring visits to Belmarsh, including from colleagues overseas, and we have co-operated with those to ensure that people are seen to be and are clearly demonstrated to be held fairly in proper conditions and with their proper rights respected, including the access that they have to their lawyers. It has to be said that no-one hearing or reading the comments of their lawyers could be in any doubt whatsoever about the access to them or the freedom (the correct freedom in our democracy) for those lawyers, even where there are ongoing cases, to raise issues publicly, as they have over the last few days.
Q32 David Winnick: Perhaps if I accompanied our colleague it would be a more balanced visit. Home Secretary, you have said that you have used your powers to detain individuals under Part IV on evidence that in fact has fallen "well above the threshold required by statute". How close does that come to a level at which criminal proceedings might be possible?
Mr Blunkett: The threshold laid down by Parliament was "reasonable belief". We believe that in certification and in the process of SIAC we have gone beyond reasonable belief. I think we would want to have feedback on the whole of the cases that have now been processed and the results before we pronounced on whether we have got very close to "beyond reasonable doubt" and I know you will forgive me in not actually pronouncing on that at this moment in time.
Q33 David Winnick: It is suggested that those who are alleged to be terrorists could be tried according to the civil law where the standard of proof, as you know, obviously, is the "balance of probability" rather than "beyond reasonable proof". Is that one way in which the controversy over detaining people outside the normal courts could be resolved?
Mr Blunkett: I do not think "balance of probability" could be used as an alternative to detention in the sense we have just been discussing it with those who are adjudged and certificated because they form a very major risk to life and limb but, as I indicated last week, there is a real possibility to discuss how those who are on the outer fringes, who are involved in financial dealings, in communication, might be dealt with through a civil order of that sort which would preclude them using or taking part in or being associated with other people and activities the breach of which would then bring them into the criminal courts. We have obviously used that system (and I would not want to compare the activity with terrorism but we have used it with anti-social behaviour very effectively) where the breach leads to the custody, whereas the civil order leads to the restriction and requirements.
Q34 Rachel Squire: Home Secretary, as I represent a constituency which currently stores some nuclear waste I admit I have always taken a keen interest in the security of nuclear material and even more so since September 11. In the government's response to the Privy Council report it was accepted that there were gaps in the current regulations relating to the security of the nuclear industry. Are you able to tell us more about what the government is doing in this area to prevent in particular intrusion by individuals seeking to use radioactive materials to cause serious harm?
Mr Blunkett: As you will know from your own constituency experience, there was, by the very nature of having to check and monitor the premises holding such material and activity around it, an immediate review. Where there have been criticisms they have, quite rightly, been picked up and responded to and the Department of Trade and Industry and those associated have been reporting back to the committee that I chair on the work that they did. That was obviously reported publicly as well and, as someone associated with it, you will be familiar with the rebuttals that were made in relation to some of those criticisms.
Sir David Omand: Very recently I went to Harwell to visit the Office of Civil Nuclear Security to talk to the management team there about their regulatory role and what they do to inspect the very important security arrangements that are made at the major nuclear sites, and I certainly came away believing that the team there were dedicated and had a very clear view of their mission. I have a high degree of confidence in those arrangements.
Q35 Rachel Squire: That is very reassuring. Home Secretary, you were mentioning earlier increased security at Heathrow Airport. Can I ask you about the Privy Council report recommendation that urgent consultation with air and ferry operators is needed regarding the provision of advance passenger information under section 119 of the 2001 Act, which amended the Terrorism Act 2000. Can you again say what steps you have taken to increase compliance with the legislation?
Mr Blunkett: When we established the report under Sir John Wheeler we did so in terms of both co-ordination on the ground and recommendations for improvement and we have obviously picked those up. The advance passenger information and the manifests which were built into the 2001 Act are not only something that we have been working on in terms of the long term programme on e-borders, which I think will be absolutely crucial to both the protection of our national identity as well as contributing to counter-terrorism, but also obviously the ongoing debate about the way in which other countries are responding, not least the debate with the US about the bringing in of their new biometric checking system. All of this forms part of trying to ensure that we use up-to-date technology but in a way that allows the processing to be meaningful. There is absolutely no point in holding information, and we have had this debate very constructively with the financial institutions, if you cannot actually collate or use it because you mislead yourself and everyone else into believing that the initial activity is the activity that saves you. It is the backroom work that really matters in these instances because you can then use the data in a manner that allows you to screen, to target and to focus on those who form the most risk. Bob, do you want to talk about API at all?
Mr Whalley: Only to say that what the ATCS Act did, of curse, was to build on measures already in the Terrorism Act 2000 and they do involve co-operation with the industry which has been forthcoming about how this kind of information can be collected. As the Home Secretary said, it needs to be collected in a proportionate way for a reasonable purpose. There is no doubt that this kind of information can enhance the view which the Security Service and the police can take about a particular risk and whether that can be moderated or improved and, providing there are safeguards to privacy and so on, it does have a role to play, so there is an issue here to be taken forward.
Q36 Chairman: You reassure us then that for every passenger coming into this country the information is known by the British intelligence authorities before they arrive and that for every passenger leaving this country going anywhere abroad the passenger list is transmitted to the intelligence authorities anywhere that they land so they can respond to any names?
Mr Blunkett: I did not say that.
Q37 Chairman: I know you did not but do you think you ought to? Are you happy, Home Secretary?
Mr Blunkett: You asked me if I had said it. No, I did not.
Q38 Chairman: Is this going to be viable in the fairly near future because I know from my own conversations of the extreme vulnerabilities we would have or the Americans or the French or the Germans would have because of human rights legislation perhaps, that information on who was on the aircraft could not be transmitted and therefore no action could be taken on the other side. I am merely asking can you give me a reassurance that the intelligence services throughout the world would know exactly who was coming on the aircraft so they could take appropriate action on the information received?
Mr Blunkett: Where there was a request and where there was a reasonable belief that that requested was founded we would be prepared, as we have been, to provide information that would safeguard both those travelling and ourselves and the host destination. We have for incoming activity a clear set of parameters for screening those coming through and a database that relates to those who pose a risk. There is not a country in the world that has a system that is able to monitor in the way that you describe but it can be done on a proportionate and targeted basis.
Q39 Chairman: I shall look at your answer very carefully and see how close you got to meeting my question, Home Secretary. I am not trying to be difficult but it is just that I can imagine how difficult it is.
Mr Blunkett: I think I have gone further than is probably appropriate in public but I am happy to provide that to you.
Q40 Chairman: Mr Whalley perhaps can correct you if necessary, if he dares!
Mr Whalley: There is no need to correct it at all, Chairman. I would just say that there is a lot of work which is going on with partner countries, both in Europe and wider, to try to get this kind of intelligence-sharing work going, particularly where there is a particular identified risk. As you have yourself said, it raises human rights issues and privacy issues and these have to be balanced together.
Q41 Chairman: The biggest human rights issue is, if I get on board a British Aircraft I can land at John F Kennedy and not be blown up halfway across the Atlantic. That is a human rights issue as well.
Mr Blunkett: Very much so, which is why the Secretary of State for Transport, in consultation with myself and, crucially, with the decision of the operators, has had to take decisions recently to cancel particular flights.
Q42 David Winnick: Well before 911, during the nineties, Home Secretary, some governments abroad, such as Egypt after the atrocity which occurred in 1994, I believe, claimed that Britain was harbouring terrorists, that people who were a threat in their own countries, Egypt, for example, nevertheless managed to get into Britain, stayed here and the accusation was made against the previous government and no doubt against the present government when it was elected that it was not taking the necessary action. What would be your response to that?
Mr Blunkett: I read about those and, of course, I also took on board such criticism when I became Home Secretary nearly three years ago. Whenever we investigated whether people had put in extradition requests, whether they had raised these matters with us, we found that they had not. I did make the point last Wednesday, and I make it again only to demonstrate the complexity of this issue, that a very large number of people came from France of Algerian extraction in the early and mid nineties as the French used their Wrongdoers Act and, of course, their powers of detention under which they can hold people under the investigatory magistracy system for up to four years without trial. That is why we wanted to have the most robust responses in counter-terrorism in being able to deal with those who threaten our lives so that we are not in any sense seen as weak in these areas, and I believe the measures we have put in place have dramatically strengthened our position and have led both to preventive action and to discouragement. I think deterring is massively underestimated in terms of the steps that have to be taken in the present circumstance.
Q43 Mr Prosser: If I can return to the issue of advance passenger information, Home Secretary, you have announced that there will be a six-month consultation period over these matters. When that six months expires can you give us a view of what happens next and what sort of timescale there is between the end of the consultation and implementing some of the measures in a practical way?
Mr Blunkett: On issues such as API and the whole issue of movement across boundaries we are trying to develop this in a way that is coterminous with what others are demanding. You are well aware of the discussions over biometric requirements from the United States and they are having a debate now about how quickly they realistically think they can implement these new requirements. We are introducing biometrics in relation to visas, we are experimenting in relation to biometrics with passports. We are moving, in my view hopefully, following the publication later this spring, to identification cards and a database with biometrics. All of these are part of the wider discussions which I, for instance, am having in the European Union, which are taking place with the G8 countries. If we can run this alongside the existing experiments with e-border surveillance equipment with the CCTV and electronic data collection at air and sea ports, we can move towards a system that protects people's rights, that is manageable in terms of the enormity of the data to be collected and has a meaningful outcome in protecting us against terrorism. That is a very difficult set of balances to achieve.
Q44 Mr Prosser: Should we look upon these measures, in particular the advance information measures, as something to address in an emergency situation or as ongoing legislation, something which will be with us for ever?
Mr Blunkett: Under Part IV of the ATCS Act we demonstrated that there was an emergency. It is my view that advance information and the use of biometrics and the exchange of information required in the modern world will be with us for ever. I do not believe that there would be a set of measures in this area that we would suddenly abandon. I think in terms of securing our future it is now with us.
Q45 Mr Prosser: Following on from that, does it mean that we will have to seek longer term derogation from the Human Rights Convention?
Mr Blunkett: No, we would not for these areas of work and I would not be proposing such a measure. What we are talking about here is those measures which will be adopted and will be coterminous across national boundaries, so a derogation by an individual state in the European context would not be required and would not be necessary.
Q46 Mr Prosser: There has been an enormous increase in security measures on the borders and in the transport system over recent years and from what you have told us this afternoon that is going to increase if anything. To what extent do you think the private carrier should continue to bear the cost of providing what essentially is public security and national security?
Mr Blunkett: In one sense we share the cost because quite a lot of the activity leading up to travel is being borne publicly, but I do think it is right that there should be a proper balance and that it is impossible for us, the taxpayers, to meet every eventuality of a changing pattern of travel which, as security and safety are the prime concern of any carrier, should be undertaken by them so long as that is fair. The argument that will be had elsewhere and is not for this afternoon is to make sure that that is fair, that the requirements that we lay down apply to all carriers.
Q47 Mr Prosser: Finally, what crossover do you see between these powers of advance passenger information for reasons of national security with proposals which are contained in the current Asylum and Immigration Bill which also points in the same direction?
Mr Blunkett: I think there will be a direct correlation, not just with nationality and asylum but also with serious and organised crime. In a few weeks we will publish a White Paper consequent on the decision to establish a Serious and Organised Crime Agency which by its very nature will have to address bringing together the immigration and customs and policing functions which are crucial in relation to not only organised crime on our borders but also travel and potential counter-terrorism measures.
Q48 Mr Viggers: Could I ask a point of detail on exactly that? I gather that the statistics for crime do not break down the type of foreign nationality. In other words, someone who is picked up for a crime will appear as "foreign" and it is impossible to discover whether such a person is a diplomat, a tourist, an immigrant or an applicant for political asylum. Would you consider refining your statistics because this is a matter which I understand has given some cause for, I will not say concern but certainly interest, in the police forces?
Mr Blunkett: I will investigate which of those categories are not clearly differentiated. I would need to write to you about that because, to take the low end of the scale, the Diplomatic Service would immediately make themselves known and available because of the rights that they hold under diplomatic passport. We would need to know if someone was claiming asylum in terms of that part of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act that we passed last year, which I was instrumental in getting, in terms of someone who commits a crime and at an appropriate level not being eligible to have their claim processed. I will happily write to you because I would be disturbed if the appropriate information for profiling purposes was not available. That certainly would have to be the case in relation to those who were being sought and suspected of being associated with terrorism.
Q49 Chairman: Home Secretary, Ms Plumridge is very close, desperate to answer some questions, so if you would pass the ball to her on some occasions we would be absolutely pleased.
Mr Blunkett: I will pass it over if she coughs loud enough to indicate that she would like to come in. That last question was not her area of responsibility, so I am not going to pass the ball to her over that.
Q50 Chairman: Perhaps she can go back to questions 1, 3, 7 and 9 if she thinks that your answers were not all they should have been!
Mr Blunkett: I do not think she will.
Chairman: It would be a career-terminating move, I am sure, but might be helpful. We have questions now on border controls and the impact on EU enlargement.
Q51 Mrs Dean: Home Secretary, the accession countries will join the EU on May 1. Do you have any specific security concerns relating to immigration from those countries, particularly in relation to their border controls, and what action has been taken to ensure that their borders are secure?
Mr Blunkett: Of course, they have free movement across the whole of the European Union and we have no fears about that. We have had detailed discussions with the accession countries and through the European Union in relation to the outer borders, the new borders of the European Union, the contribution that we are able to make to strengthening their border and immigration controls, and we have been doing that already because we have an obligation to ensure on people and drug smuggling that the controls that existed were strengthened. They have been very positive about being prepared to accept advice and help in those areas, including with technology, and other European countries have joined with us. We have bilateral and trilateral approaches to different members of the eight states affected in this area, because obviously Cyprus and Malta have not, and that has been very helpful. I think that it is in their interest to do so because obviously they are affected detrimentally as much as we are if they find that their borders are being abused, and that is why they have been so amenable.
Q52 Mrs Dean: You will know the recent Home Affairs Committee report on asylum applications commented that "there has been undue delay in resolving the issues surrounding the creation of a unified frontier force" and also that "it is now time for the Government to resolve disagreements between agencies on this proposal and take action to promote their greater integration". Given that in September of last year you expressed the view that there would have to be change, what progress has been made?
Mr Blunkett: The Serious and Organised Crime Agency presumes that there will be change in this area and, with the amalgamation of those elements of our Immigration Service, those aspects of Customs & Excise (and it is very substantial; we are talking about around 1,200 staff from Customs) coming in and the relationship with ports, police and Special Branch, those will have to be dealt with in the White Paper, and therefore I think a very substantial step will have been taken to meeting the issues raised and the concerns in the passage that you have just read out.
Q53 Mrs Dean: Thank you for that. There has been some criticism of the operation of port and border controls in this country. Lord Carlile has argued that the police are "considerably" inhibited in their work by the lack of accommodation available to them. What can you tell us about the current status of the Memorandum of Understanding with police and port authorities?
Mr Blunkett: We wanted to ensure that the facilities available were the best possible. We have been engaged in an exercise of moving part of our border controls to France and subsequently to Belgium, so there has been a reconfiguring of what is necessary and where in terms of the first contact. We have therefore got a dual programme developing with the French and Belgians facilities on their coasts and at the same time ensuring that there are proper accommodation facilities available at our ports.
Mr Whalley: Chairman, this is the question of the accommodation for Special Branch officers at ports. This is a programme of work being taken forward by the National Co-ordinator of Ports Policing, who is a senior police officer who works with us in the Home Office and is in touch with all the ports offices. It is something which of course has to engage the carriers and the companies and dialogue is going on there. Ultimately there are powers in the Terrorism Act 2000 for the Home Secretary to require the provision of accommodation, but that, of course, is very much a last resort, and what should precede that is the kind of effective dialogue we are having now.
Q54 Mrs Dean: Home Secretary, could you comment on the suggestion by Lord Carlile that the threat of terrorism via small ports and airfields is "very high"?
Mr Blunkett: We take advice from the Security Service and the counter-terrorism branch on these matters. We move and provide for surveillance and for security where it is appropriate. The task of making that mobile and flexible is crucial so that those who would threaten us are not aware that we have developed at particular airfields or ports a facility that is moveable and we have built into our planning process mobile units to achieve that. You will appreciate that this is delicate. We are an island and therefore having that flexible, responsive approach is crucial to avoid those who would damage us knowing precisely where a particular facility will be at any given moment in time. I recognise that we are not in camera here and therefore I am choosing my words carefully.
Chairman: We are moving on to a rather contentious issue, the use of intelligence and informing the public, Home Secretary.
Q55 Mr Viggers: Home Secretary, in the United States there is a well-publicised system of informing the public of the state of alert ranging, I think, from red (predictably) down through to green, to inform the public as it were that the state of alert is very high, medium, fairly low and so on. I sought to put down some parliamentary questions because I happen to know that we have in this country a system which operates in Civil Service establishments so there is a different categorisation in Ministry of Defence establishments. I tried to put down questions as to whether we should introduce such a system as the American one here and asked for publicity about our existing system in the United Kingdom and was told that I could not put the questions down for security reasons. Would you like to comment on this?
Mr Blunkett: I am certainly not answering in public questions that were ruled out because they were a security risk just because we are in this committee but I want to try and be helpful. We took a view that constant public reports on changing levels, unless they put the public at risk and therefore knowing would be a method of engaging the public in their own protection and the protection of others, and we made it clear that we would then indicate the nature of the risk, would not be helpful. On your primary question that you were going to put down, without answering it specifically, if there are changed levels of risk and therefore levels of alertness across government, then they will be co-ordinated. Would you like to add to that in your usual judicious way, David?
Sir David Omand: Could I add another thought? You will have followed the debate that is going on in the US Congress on the efficacy of the alert system that you have referred to and the feelings there are in many quarters that a more finely granulated or graduated system would actually be of advantage, so what we are seeing is experience growing of having a national (in their case continent-wide) system and what we had over many years, which is a system which focuses on specific sectors and has the capacity to raise and lower alert states for specific sectors. The essence of it is whether those who receive the alerting information know what it is they should do when they receive it. That is where I personally continue to have some doubts about whether a national system is appropriate. On the other hand, the system that applies to government buildings and similar systems which applies in sectors such as aviation, allows for government to raise and lower alert states when they have information specific to those sectors, and that seems to me the right approach because those involved in the sectors know what it is that they will do. In the case of government buildings they all know what they are to do if that alert state should change.
Mr Blunkett: Can I also be helpful and say that it just happens to be a coincidence that it is exactly a year ago today since we informed Parliament that we were going to step up the amount of information available on the website. We still think there is more we could do in this area and we are examining that so that people feel that they are part of the process and that they are able to engage. I mentioned earlier that it was important that people were able to use the hot line as well when they felt that there was something that they wished to alert us to and report to us. There is more we can do that would not frighten people but would alert them.
Q56 Mr Viggers: Because the website does include some very practical advice, does it not, on having at hand such items as batteries, a battery-powered torch and water and so on?
Mr Blunkett: Yes.
Q57 Mr Viggers: May I take it that you have as government considered the possibility of having a national alert state which is publicised and you have decided so far that you do not wish to do so?
Mr Blunkett: Yes.
Q58 Mr Viggers: Very well. That is leading up to this really. The government discussion paper on counter-terrorism powers gives an appraisal of the current threat but is able to offer little specific evidence for its conclusion that the threat is "global and continuing" and "particularly high against the UK and UK interests overseas". The threat is the justification for many of the measures we are discussing. Do you believe that those measures place an additional responsibility on you to disclose the evidence on which your assessment is based? You are asking us to take a great deal on trust. Is there more you can say?
Mr Blunkett: I think if we wanted to commit suicide we would. We are in a serious business here. These people do not negotiate, they do not have a platform, they do not have a political stance that we can talk to them about, and they do not have fear of prosecution or punishment. You can prosecute and punish someone who is committed to suicide in the act of blowing you to pieces, so when the head of the Security Service brings forward evidence, as she has, and is prepared to speak publicly about it, as she did, and we authorised her to give public lectures on these matters, she cannot possibly give the detailed evidence on which her assessment is made but the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre that was established last June draws together evidence here and from across the world, analyses that threat and ensures that we are appraised of the nature of what faces us. I do not think anyone who has seen the attacks that have taken place over the last two years internationally could be in any doubt whatsoever that Al-Qaeda cells are active and determined to destroy our lives. British citizens were killed in Bali, British citizens were killed in Istanbul at the end of last year, so this is an ongoing threat and I am really worried at the inference of your question because there is a tendency, and it has been described by lawyers in this country, to describe this as a "so-called" war on terror as though the terror threat was somehow invented and it is not.
Q59 Mr Viggers: Home Secretary, can I say that I think it is right to ask the question and I welcome your answer.
Mr Blunkett: Thank you very much, and I accept your remark as a clarification.
Q60 Mr Viggers: It is not an apology.
Mr Blunkett: No, no, I understand where it is coming from. You have asked the question.
Q61 Mr Prosser: Home Secretary, there has been quite a lot of controversy lately relating to decisions to cancel flights on security grounds, albeit based on information and intelligence coming from the United States. Are you satisfied yourself that we are setting the criteria level at its correct position in making these decisions?
Mr Blunkett: Yes, I am. I think that the operators are where the final decision must lie. The Secretary of State for Transport and myself have been very clear, as we have been over a considerable time now, that we should always exercise caution. It is always right as you, Chair, actually demonstrated about an hour ago, that we do not want to be blown up halfway across the Atlantic and, as I am flying with our major carrier in a day or two's time to Washington, nor do I, but I want us to be robust and realistic about appraising the evidence and the credibility of that evidence and that is what we are trying to do.
Q62 Mr Prosser: At the fear of being rebuked for asking the question, -----
Mr Blunkett: I did not rebuke. I just stated very strongly the case and understood the nature of it, so have a go.
Q63 Mr Prosser: In these circumstances of cancelled flights have you ever taken any action personally to look individually at the intelligence so that you could make your own appraisal rather than just taking the recommendations and advice from your officials?
Mr Blunkett: If the question is have we as politicians, the Secretary of State for Transport and I, overridden advice, the answer is no. Do we ask our officials, including David Omand and Cheryl, to appraise the credibility of the sources with the Security Service? Yes, we do, and, of course, we would be remiss if we did not.
Sir David Omand: Indeed, and it is the function of JTAC, the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, to produce assessed intelligence for policy makers and decision makers. The decision that is then taken in the light of that threat assessment is for ministers but the assessment itself rests on the professional judgments of those working in the Security Service and the other agencies. I think I would want to add that in the end these are risk management judgments. We cannot give absolute guarantees of security. As officials we have to advise ministers on the risk management and the managing down of the risk from terrorism but there is no absolute assurance in this world. We have said we will never hesitate to issue a warning or take action if that is the best way to protect the community or a group facing a specific and credible threat, and public safety is our first priority, but we are going to have to live with a situation in which there is risk and exercise suitable fortitude.
Q64 Mr Prosser: Lastly from me, have there been incidences (if you can answer the question) when the recommendation perhaps, if it does come as a recommendation from the USA, is that a flight should not take place and that recommendation has been overturned by officials and the local intelligence?
Sir David Omand: It is not for the United States to make recommendations about whether flights should or should not take place. We have a close relationship with our principal allies overseas, we share intelligence, we discuss it, and then our own intelligence analysts will produce an assessment for British ministers who will then, in this case principally of course the Secretary of State for Transport in consultation with the carriers decisions will then be taken about whether or not it is safe for a flight to continue.
Q65 Chairman: Home Secretary, you may be aware that the Defence Committee flew to Washington on flight 223. Despite many warnings we flew the flag, arrived very safely. The Transport Committee, that knows far more about these things than we do, sought to divert and go to Baltimore, and ended up in Reykjavik and were a day late, so I am afraid I have not had the courage to talk to my colleague, Mrs Dunwoody, to slightly admonish her for her profound mistake.
Mr Blunkett: Your fortitude and foresight I shall follow to the letter in the next few days.
Q66 Chairman: You must not follow me, Home Secretary, because I actually proposed that we should fly to Baltimore. My committee were wiser than I was.
Mr Blunkett: Well, Chairman, you have really disappointed me! Baltimore is a very interesting city, as I have been there recently.
Q67 Chairman: As, of course, is Reykjavik.
Mr Blunkett: I will take your word for it!
Q68 Mr Singh: I would like to pursue this point about the threat to these flights, Home Secretary. What kind of threat was it - I am puzzled, and I am sure a lot of people are - that led to these flights being cancelled? If it was a bomb could we not metal detect all the luggage or take all the luggage out? If somebody was going to pull a gun on the plane could not all the passengers be metal detected? If we had information that somebody was a terrorist could they not have been arrested and the flight take place? What kind of threat is it that we cannot take other action in order to let the flight go ahead but we have to cancel it?
Mr Blunkett: Let me just reassure you that if there was any evidence of a specific individual being suspected of terrorism, they would, of course, be dealt with accordingly. It is totally impracticable to go through the process that would be necessary in terms of the disruption of that flight in a way that would be acceptable in a free society, and the judgment has been taken, and I have talked at some length with Alistair Darling about this because we were dealing with it all the way over Christmas and New Year, with the carrier's common sense that it was better that the carrier had that flight cancelled and was able to operate other flights rather than the nature of the surveillance of the individuals required, and of their luggage and of the flight itself, which would immediately cause even more worry and deterioration in confidence, and we hold to that judgment.
Q69 Mr Singh: Can I just pursue that: by cancelling, are we not encouraging the terrorists?
Sir David Omand: I think that comes back to the point, if I may, about risk management. When there is specific information relating to a flight then clearly the first thing we do is to review the nature of that intelligence and what it might say about a possible threat to see what counter-measures and additional security measures can be taken. Such measures are regularly taken on the basis of intelligence but there can be occasions on which prudence dictates that it is safer for the flight not to proceed. These are rare but when it happens it happens for good reason. I am afraid I really do not think we can go into the sort of cases that would give rise to this.
Q70 Mr Blunt: Recently flights have been cancelled to Riyadh and warnings given about the situation surrounding those in Saudi Arabia which have caused considerable offence in Saudi Arabia and have been strongly rejected, I think, by the Saudi Arabian Government as damaging to Saudi Arabia given what the United Kingdom is saying. Who does, in the end, make these judgments taking into account advice presumably received from the Foreign Office post in Riyadh and advisors on the Middle East desks in London?
Mr Blunkett: It would not be a Foreign Office decision, it would be one relating to security and those charged with security here would have to meet - as they did on each occasion when there was a concern - to go through that assessment and analysis process and then to advise both the Government and the operator of the best approach. I do not want to comment about the reaction of the Saudi Government, except to say we have had to cancel a number of flights over the last three months to Washington. Flights have been cancelled to Nairobi and elsewhere. We honestly do not believe that there is any reason why any government should take offence at taking sensible security measures which are in the best interests of passengers but also, I would have thought, of the destination country.
Sir David Omand: We do take care, of course, to discuss the position with the foreign government concerned, in the case you cite with Saudi Arabia. You will be aware that the Saudi authorities themselves have very recently been issuing warnings about the danger of specific forms of terrorism within Saudi Arabia. I do not think I would want to place too much emphasis on there being a problem between the United Kingdom Government and the Saudi Government because I think there is a great deal of understanding about the need for public safety on the part of both governments.
Q71 David Winnick: Surely, as far as passengers are concerned, mindful of the acute terrorist threat, they are not likely, Home Secretary, are they, to start complaining because their flights are cancelled? Presumably they put their lives before any inconvenience.
Mr Blunkett: People have been remarkably sensible and understanding.
David Winnick: I would hope so.
Q72 Mr Taylor: Home Secretary, this question is perhaps an extension of the same line of questioning, though it is perhaps a doom watch variant. May I ask you in general terms how do you balance security considerations against the public right to know that they are at risk? For instance, if there is a credible threat to a particular building you might tell the occupants to evacuate but what if the threat is equally credible but to a whole city or town?
Mr Blunkett: If there was a threat to a town or city that we were unable, through the use of the security and intelligence services' counter-terrorism branch to be able to thwart, which is obviously the whole objective of being able to intervene at a point where you can disrupt or deter - and I used a public example earlier like Heathrow deliberately because it is a known example - then you avoid having to cause the enormous massive disruption and dislocation which in itself would be an advantage to the terrorists. It is not simply taking life; it is the disruption of and dislocation of the economy and of our way of life and of commerce that people seek. At all costs you try and avoid that taking place. As you are aware, evacuation plans are part of preparing under the resilience programme and we would have those plans in place but they have to be balanced in relation to what would happen if panic ensued and the way in which you would then be faced with a very different and more impossible problem. Cheryl, seeing that the Chairman is desperate you should say something, do you want to comment?
Q73 Chairman: Please do, otherwise Sir David will dock you half a day's salary if you do not give a long answer.
Ms Plumridge: Thank you, Chairman. I think the only thing I can add to what the Home Secretary has said is really that mass evacuation is one of the things that we plan for but is not a panacea in itself. We have to aim, also, for the circumstances in which mass evacuation may not be recommended but perhaps people start to self-evacuate. It is something we are very aware of and do plan for but it is fraught with difficulties.
Sir David Omand: Could I just add too that the only absolute that I can see here is that public safety should be our priority. The responsibility that any government is going to have to carry is what is the best way to protect the community or a particular area or venue when there is a specific and credible threat. You cannot say in advance what the answer to that will be.
Q74 Mr Taylor: Could I just develop that very slightly, Chairman. If I might ask the Home Secretary whether he thought there might be a case for a kind of hierarchy of alerts, frequently colours are used, so that the public could evaluate their own vigilance?
Mr Blunkett: I think earlier we acknowledged the different forms of alert and that we would use them only to describe an alert where people were in a position to aid their own protection and assist in their own security so that people did not make individual entrepreneurial decisions which led to panic. Without being facetious some of us remember Orson Welles ---
Q75 Mr Taylor: Yes.
Mr Blunkett: Yes, and you just have to be very careful that you do not trigger anything like that.
Q76 Mr Taylor: Yes.
Sir David Omand: Perhaps I might also put on record for the Committee a distinction that I have found helpful in working practically in this area and that is between public information provided so that we have an informed and supportive public, alerting information which is aimed at specific sectors and those who carry responsibilities for public safety and public warnings which we should only give when we are clear what advice we accompany a warning with so that the public can help put themselves out of the way of danger. Clearly the more public information we can provide on the Home Office website as a good example the better. Alerting information should be given to those who really understand what it is they have to do when they receive it, and public warnings, as I say, should be given when we are clear what the best way to protect the community is and provide the appropriate advice.
Q77 Mr Cameron: Home Secretary, you have mentioned Heathrow a couple of times, I wonder whether you could just tell us a little bit more about how the decision making takes place when you have a Heathrow situation, the respective roles of Sir David and yourself and how decisions are made in that sort of situation?
Mr Blunkett: The official group would meet and the analysis would be done. The Prime Minister would call senior ministers together and a decision, as I described earlier, would be taken. The operational activity would then click into play and it would be entirely, therefore, in the hands primarily of the police, in conjunction with and advised by the security service on an on-going basis to decide whether they needed to call, for instance, as they did on that occasion, for the defence forces to be involved. They would then repeat the exercise in terms of stepping down once the deterrent effect in this case had been successful.
Q78 Mr Cameron: The planning for all eventualities along a sort of Heathrow scale or maybe a little bit less or maybe a little bit more always involves the Prime Minister making the political decision?
Mr Blunkett: No, that would be where the police believed that it would be necessary to call on the wider defence forces. It is that decision which is the political one, not the decision to mobilise. Obviously operational decision to mobilise would be taken immediately by the police.
Sir David Omand: What we have 24 hours a day, seven days a week is the capacity to bring together the key officials in Government departments together with the police and other emergency services and the intelligence and security services to assess very quickly a situation should it develop and provide advice for ministers. We would expect the Home Secretary to take the chair unless, as the Home Secretary has indicated, the scale of the event was such that it was appropriate for the Prime Minister himself.
Q79 Mr Cameron: Those sound slightly different answers.
Mr Blunkett: No, they are not. Let us not mince words because the press speculate on it. The gathering of those people is these days usually shorthanded to COBRA, actually it is the room people meet in but it is associated with that. The security advice will have been provided. If it is an on-going operational activity the counter-terrorism branch will get on with it. If it requires political clearance and pulling in the defence forces, authorising them it is not calling them in, it is authorising the counter-terrorism branch to draw down on them, to call on them, it is authorised by us as politicians.
Q80 Mr Cameron: Yes, but there was a slight suggestion from Sir David that the Home Secretary would be expected to take the chair, those were his words, and I thought in your first answer to me you said this would be a matter for the Prime Minister.
Sir David Omand: The Home Secretary is the chair.
Q81 Mr Cameron: I said if there was something a bit less than Heathrow or a bit more than Heathrow, what are the circumstances? I thought the Home Secretary said it tended to be the Prime Minister in each case, in every case, and you were giving a slightly different answer.
Mr Blunkett: No, no. I do not want to mislead or mix you up. In one sense it will be the Prime Minister's decision anyway as to whether he wishes to chair but he would do so in circumstances where, as with Heathrow, there was a request to call on the defence forces and he felt that at that level it was appropriate for him to chair rather me. That is fine because the COBRA group, and the chairing by the Home Secretary is for all sorts of eventualities not just counter-terrorism.
Sir David Omand: I do not want to give the impression that in the large amount of business which, alas, we have to transact on counter-terrorism that the Prime Minister is routinely in the chair. What we are talking about here are major threats to the United Kingdom.
Q82 Rachel Squire: Home Secretary, picking up your comments about the wider defence forces, can I ask you, first of all, about the Civil Contingencies Reaction Force which was formed after 11 September. Could you say how significant a resource it is within the total response capability?
Mr Blunkett: We think it is a very helpful addition and that it adds to the capacity of police, defence and special forces and would be an important back up in terms of activity behind and associated with any eventuality. It is in that guise that we feel that it is helpful to have people trained and co-ordinated through the 14 structures that have been set in place. Cheryl, this is very much in your area.
Ms Plumridge: Thank you. Yes, the CCRS have been set up. They were declared fully operational on 31 December and we now have in hand a set of exercises, and there is an additional training allowance for the CCRS to enable them to get used to working with the police, local authorities, the other emergency services, etc. They are, of course, just one of the ways which the military might support us. It might be appropriate for regular forces to be used, for instance but we think it is very helpful that they have been dedicated to civil contingencies in this way and that we do have a chance to train and work up plans with them.
Mr Blunkett: Have we published Expecting the Unexpected?
Ms Plumridge: Yes, we have.
Q83 Rachel Squire: Thank you for that, Ms Plumridge and Home Secretary. That leads me on to my second question which is - and you have really started to answer it - how you would respond to those who would say should it not be the job of the regular army to guarantee certain levels of manpower and skills for homeland security? What further response would you make to that?
Mr Blunkett: Two things. Firstly, our defence forces are for traditional defence of the realm and overseas activity to secure that. Secondly, obviously, in circumstances we are describing now, they have a very key role of their own but we could usefully - and this was why it was suggested in the Defence White Paper and has been acted on - develop the civil capacity - and I am a great advocate, as you know, of civil society and active citizenship - to be able to draw the strength that we have in our community, just as we have done with the territorials abroad in terms of being able to use that talent and experience effectively. If we can train people and plan for that so much the better. I think these are complimentary rather than in any way contradictory to each other. We have a professional army where other countries often do not.
Q84 Rachel Squire: Can I ask you lastly about your views on the police talking about the need for surge capabilities and identifying various options. Again, what would you say to the view that the army should provide some of that capability that the police have identified?
Mr Blunkett: I think, Chairman, you and I have talked about this over the last couple of years. Let me be clear, because I think we need to retain as part of our historic unwritten constitution the very clear separation between military and civilian forces, the primacy domestically of the civilian authorities seeking the help of and calling on the military but not seeing those as taking over their role and for the public to have confidence in that so that we are very clear where the boundary lies in a democracy. It has worked very well for us and I think we would be wise to retain that distinction. I do not know whether Bob wants to add something else?
Mr Whalley: All I would add on the particular point about the police service is, as the Home Secretary says, they have the primacy in the response. They can always call upon neighbouring police forces, mutual aid arrangements can come into place very quickly. The police have a very good network for doing all this. The police have certain specialist facilities which can be made available. There is within the police force quite a lot of capacity which will be deployed. These are large operational judgments for the senior police officers themselves to make.
Sir David Omand: I want to add too a word about the capabilities that the reserve forces bring. In exercises that I have seen, the range of skills and professions that are represented in the reserve forces in the sort of circumstances we are talking about are a huge asset.
Q85 Chairman: Absolutely. Home Secretary, your plea for continuation of civilian primacy is absolutely right but when the wheel comes off the military are very, very good.
Mr Blunkett: They did not do a bad job, did they, in the foot mountains. I take your point.
Chairman: Absolutely. They are wonderful, as are the police. The last question goes to Gwyn Prosser.
Q86 Mr Prosser: Home Secretary, the Chairman has asked you some questions about the involvement of the private security sector, to what extent does the creation of the Security Industry Authority increase or otherwise the tendency to use the private security to reinforce in cases of emergency?
Mr Blunkett: I do not think it does. I think it provides a capacity to train and accredit. I think with the structure we set in place with the Police Reform Act, the use of those who are engaged in some form of security or order has to be, and quite rightly should be, under the direction of the police and therefore any activity would have to be accredited by the police themselves, whether in large shopping centres or major leisure facilities. I think that is the right thing to do as an aid and support to rather than replacing the normal traditional forces.
Q87 Mr Prosser: In September of last year there was a major exercise in London to assess the emergency services' response to a chemical attack in the Tube. Can you tell us briefly what you have learnt from that?
Mr Blunkett: All the lessons that were learnt have been now built into and will be applied - God help us - if we were ever in the circumstance to need to react in that way. I do not intend to list them. The whole point of the exercise was actually to expose weaknesses, to demonstrate where we needed to strengthen our capacity, to look at the improvements we could make in co-ordination. We were very honest about it. There is no point in holding an exercise to demonstrate that there is nothing wrong, you have to hold an exercise with the intent of being very clear about the lessons. Forgive me, I am not being obstructive here but if I listed them, people are out there monitoring what we are doing and saying and I do my best to be reasonably open and honest about these things rather than mealy-mouthed but in public I cannot enunciate a number of weaknesses although I did notice that one or two quite responsible people who were invited to view it took it as far as they possibly could at the time, did they not, David?
Sir David Omand: One lesson, however, we do draw from it, which is well planned and organised exercises that are discussed well in advance with representatives of the media can be presented in a way that does not cause public alarm or cause an impact on tourism. We were very pleased with the response to the exercise.
Q88 Mr Prosser: Finally then - really finally - what plans do you have for any future practical exercises including the front line responders?
Mr Blunkett: There are ongoing desk top exercises, there are ongoing regional and sub-regional exercises. We already announced that we want further joint exercises internationally so that we can experience and learn from the experience of others. We will be discussing that with partners both in the US and Europe over the next few months. I do not know whether, David and Bob, you can add to that?
Mr Whalley: On the major terrorist exercises, this is an extensive programme which is a mixture of table top exercises, as the Home Secretary has said, and major exercises mobilising the police service and many others, in close working with central government. This is a programme planned with the police and others which is designed to cover the range of scenarios that we might have to deal with. Increasingly we are trying to reflect all those in the exercise planning but that is long standing and effective programming.
Mr Blunkett: Some of them are very specific and would be specific to health, some to policing counter-terrorism attacks on CBRN so that they would be tailored to the different nature of the attack.
Chairman: Home Secretary, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your two hours. It has been very encouraging. Parliamentary committees are very quick to criticise failure of joined up government. The committees are appallingly bad in joining up their own activities. With the exception of the Quadripartite Committee of four, which is rather cumbersome, there are very, very few occasions when committees actually get together, maybe we should do it rather more frequently. Thank you all very much.