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Accountability (Summer Recess)

23. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the accountability of Government Departments during the summer adjournment. [102890]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The recent introduction of written questions and written ministerial statements in September appears to have been a success. It represents a significant strengthening of existing arrangements for ensuring the accountability of Departments during the summer recess and provides—contrary to the opinion of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—yet another example of modernisation. The House agreed in principle on 1 November that September written questions should become permanent and I will make proposals to achieve that.

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Ben Chapman: Given that there are restrictions in respect of time and number on September questions, yet 730 questions were lodged by 100 Members of Parliament, does it not suggest that it was a considerably useful exercise? Will the Leader of the House consider extending the process to other recesses as well? Since Ministers continue to be Ministers and Departments continue to function during recesses, what interest is served by our not doing so?

Mr. Straw: I will consider any suggestion that is put to me and I will certainly look at whether we could extend the period for answering questions in September, but there is less scope for doing this in the Christmas and Easter recesses, which are pretty short and a large part of which are taken up by public holidays. I also point out to the House that the number of written questions has risen astonishingly over the past 10 years. Taking three Sessions of equal length—the first Session of each Parliament—there were tabled in the 1997-98 Session, 53,000 written questions; in the 2001-02 Session, 73,000; and in the 2005-06 Session, 95,000. That is about an 80 per cent. increase, and when Members on both sides of the House understandably complain about any delay in answering questions they must bear it in mind that there is a limited resource for both answering those questions and clearing them.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Although there is a general welcome for the tabling of written questions during the summer recess, there is concern that the quality of the replies given is somewhat lacking. What is the Leader of the House doing to assure the House that we will get proper, full answers at the first time of asking, so that Members are not forced to ask lots of supplementary questions?

Mr. Straw: I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his first outing on the Front Bench.

Ministers make every effort to ensure that questions are answered on time and accurately. I shall continue to make myself unpopular with my ministerial colleagues whenever matters are raised by Members on either side of the House about lapses, but I repeat that the number of questions being asked of Ministers has shot up. For example, three Members have asked 1,100 questions of a single Department—the Home Office—between them in quite a short space of time. A shadow spokesman recently tabled 140 questions in a single day. That is currently their right, but I say to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, that this is not a matter of sport. The House must have a sense of proportion if the system of asking written ministerial questions is to continue sensibly.

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Alexander Litvinenko

3.32 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the death of Alexander Litvinenko and to explain what action the Government are taking as a result.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): This statement provides a factual account of the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Litvinenko on 23 November 2006. There is, as the House will know, an ongoing police investigation, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that, for obvious reasons, I am limited in what I can say to ensure the integrity of any judicial process. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Health and I have co-ordinated the Government’s response on this incident.

In the late afternoon of Thursday 23 November, the police confirmed with the Health Protection Agency that a significant quantity of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 had been found in Mr. Litvinenko’s urine. The material was identified following extensive tests by forensic toxicologists. In response to this finding, the police liaised closely with experts to search for any residual radioactive material at a number of locations in London.

The police have now confirmed that traces of polonium-210 have been found at certain locations, including the Itsu sushi restaurant at 167 Piccadilly, in some areas of the Millennium hotel, Grosvenor square and at Mr. Litvinenko’s home in Muswell Hill, London. Tests are continuing at a number of locations. The police are continuing an extensive examination of CCTV footage to trace possible witnesses, to examine Mr. Litvinenko’s movements at relevant times, including when he first became ill and to identify people whom he may have met.

Following the confirmation of the presence of polonium-210, the Health Protection Agency investigated clinical areas at Barnet hospital and University College hospital. One area in the intensive care unit remains closed at University College hospital. All other areas at these hospitals are functioning as normal on the advice of the Health Protection Agency.

The Health Protection Agency has requested that anyone who was in the Itsu restaurant, Piccadilly, or who was in the Millennium hotel on 1 November to contact NHS Direct, where further advice is available. In addition, the chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, issued advice to GPs and hospitals on the risks and clinical implications of exposure to polonium-210.

NHS Direct has so far received approximately 500 calls relating to this incident. A small number of people have been invited to take follow-up tests as a precaution. I emphasise that the Health Protection Agency has made clear the very precautionary nature of this invitation.

The Itsu restaurant remains closed and the Government Decontamination Service is in discussions with the owners about the clean-up process. A bar and
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various locations at the Millennium hotel are currently closed to the public. Ongoing work is taking place at the hotel and at Mr Litvinenko's residence.

The coroner will decide whether a post mortem will take place following advice from the Health Protection Agency. Mr Litvinenko's body is currently at a London mortuary.

The Russian ambassador was called to the Foreign Office on 24 November. He was asked to convey to the Russian authorities our expectation that they should be ready to offer all necessary co-operation to the investigation as it proceeds.

David Davis: I thank the Home Secretary for that statement. I quite appreciate the limitations on what he can say.

As the Home Secretary has said, the death of Mr. Alexander Litvinenko occurred in suspicious circumstances. I assume that is why Cobra was convened last week or over the weekend. There are grounds to suspect that this was a particularly cruel, protracted and unpleasant assassination, and Mr. Litvinenko, his family and his associates all believe that he was the victim of a Russian secret service assassination attempt. It is far too soon to know the truth of that, but I would not in any event expect the Home Secretary to comment on that. However, what appears to be known, as I think the Home Secretary has confirmed, is that Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned by a dose of polonium-210, a synthetic radioactive isotope. That raises a number of issues about how such material is obtained as it is made by a sophisticated technique normally available only to Governments, about the technical sophistication involved in transporting and delivering the material undetected and, in particular, about the knowledge required to calculate the dose sufficient to kill but low enough to make detection difficult, as it was in this case.

That, in turn, means that it is incredibly important to resolve the question whether the Russian state was involved. If it was—given that a British citizen who had been given asylum and was therefore under British Government protection may have been murdered on British soil—that has enormous implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia and implications, too, for other émigrés in the United Kingdom who are opponents of the Russian Government. If the Russian state was not involved, that raises the almost equally disturbing prospect that such sophisticated capabilities are available to criminals in the United Kingdom and possibly therefore to other groups.

The House will understand that, for reasons of law, diplomacy and, indeed, other proprieties, there are limits on what the Home Secretary can say. He has already told the House that the Government have sought the co-operation of the Russian Government in pursuing these inquiries. Will he tell us the extent of that? Will that allow state employees with diplomatic immunity to be interviewed? Will it allow access to Russian citizens who may have entered or left the United Kingdom recently? Will it allow the UK police to have the right to interview other Russian citizens such as the associates of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was murdered recently and who appears to have been an associate of Mr. Litvinenko? Have the Russian Government undertaken to co-operate in all such inquiries?

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It has also been widely reported that traces of radioactivity have been found in three or more separate locations around London. I could not quite keep count as the Home Secretary was speaking; it think it is more than three. That is clearly a matter of concern to ordinary members of the public who may have visited one of those locations. Will he confirm what I understood him to be saying—that the three who have so far been kept in because they are showing symptoms are only possible and not likely contaminees? Will he also tell the House what action has been taken to protect the safety of the public further and, in particular, when in this process the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at Porton Down was involved?

John Reid: Let me go through the questions in the order that the right hon. Gentleman raised them. First, I urge caution on everyone not to get ahead of ourselves or, in particular, the police investigation. Cobra was not called because there was a suspicious death. The police’s original position, when Cobra was first called, was not a suspicious death, but an unexplained death. I put that on the record as a matter of fact. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently concerning, not least from the point of view of public health, to bring together the cross-governmental agency that deals with these issues.

Secondly, I caution everyone against assuming that the police have yet said even as much as that they believe that Mr. Litvinenko was killed. The police have been very careful in the words that they have used. They have said that they are dealing with a suspicious death and that is the basis on which they are making their investigations, but they have not ruled in or ruled out anything, and therefore it would be premature to go ahead and speculate on any particular lines of investigation, including those that may become necessary, with anyone outside the country. As far as the preliminary contacts with the Russian Government are concerned, as I explained, we have made it plain to them that, if it were required, we would expect them to give us all possible assistance. As far as I am aware, they have indicated that that would be the case.

On the premises that the right hon. Gentleman asked about, in several areas of the Millennium hotel, in the restaurant itself, in Mr. Litvinenko’s home residence and in several other premises, we have found some indications, to a greater or lesser extent, of radiation. I should explain to the House that the nature of this radiation is such that it does not travel over long distances—a few centimetres at most—and therefore there is no need for public alarm over the fact that radiation may have been found, since there is such a short distance encompassed in its effect distance, as it were.

A small number of people out of the 500 or so who have contacted NHS Direct through the appeal from the Health Protection Agency have described symptoms that have merited further investigation by tests. Obviously that figure can change from time to time as people phone in and indicate their own position or ask questions. As of this morning, the number was very small—less than five. If there were any significant
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increase in that number, I, or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, would immediately bring it to the attention of the House in some form of written statement.

The Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response is part of the HPA and I think—I stand open to correction—that it would have been involved from as early as last Thursday, or thereabouts. Again, if there is anything to indicate that that is not the precise time it was involved, I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although the Russian authorities may be completely innocent of this crime, does the Home Secretary accept that there is bound to be suspicion simply because a number of leading Russian critics have been murdered in recent times and therefore, inevitably, the finger is pointing at the Russian authorities, whether that is justified or otherwise?

John Reid: My hon. Friend gives us his views and describes the situation as he sees it. It is my job not to deal with suspicions or the pointing of fingers, but to represent to the House the investigation and the conclusions that the police have reached on the basis of the evidence as they see it. People will have their own views on the nature of the Russian Government, or any other Government for that matter, but I have to tell the House what the police tell me. They tell me that they regard this as a suspicious death. They also say, very emphatically, that they have not come to any conclusions on how the death occurred and that they have not ruled anything in, or anything out. It would thus be unwise of me to go beyond that and start pointing fingers or raising suspicions.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for his response to the urgent question. It has been chilling and grotesque to see this man degenerate before our eyes in the midst of all these conspiracy theories, allegations and counter-allegations.

What estimate has the Home Secretary made of the number of other Russian nationals who are permanently or temporarily resident in this country and might fall under the same category as Mr. Litvinenko: those who have worked for the Russian security services in the past, or those who are outspoken critics of the present Russian Government? What contact has been made with them about the precautionary measures that they might wish to take?

I am not suggesting in any way that the FSB—the Russian security services—is involved in this case. However, it was reported over the weekend that under Russian law, the FSB has the legal power to pursue enemies of the Russian state abroad—beyond Russia. What contact has been made with the FSB about the interpretation of such a power? While it might enjoy extra-territorial powers under Russian law, such a thing would be unacceptable on British soil.

John Reid: However the hon. Gentleman “caveats” his second point, the implications of what he says are clear. I thank him for the invite to follow him down that path, but I will not, precisely for the reasons that I gave earlier.

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The hon. Gentleman asks about the number of Russian nationals in this country ranging from those who disagree with their Government’s policy right through to those who have an implacable opposition to it. I do not think that a precise figure can be placed on that. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether we can give a 100 per cent. guarantee of anyone’s personal safety, of course we cannot do so. However, if anyone is in possession of any information that leads them to believe that a crime is about to be committed or is likely to be committed, or fears for their safety on rational grounds, I would urge them to get in touch with the authorities.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): It might sound old-fashioned, but some Members of Parliament have an open mind about this matter and hope that the Secretary of State’s counsel about not rushing to judgment will prevail. I do not think that this is a matter for levity because people pointing a finger at the Government of the Russian Federation when there is no basis so to do are clearly doing harm to our international relations and interests.

After the collapse of the apartheid regime, an awful lot of nuclear material went missing. Is the Secretary of State confident that sufficient work has been done in London and by our security and intelligence authorities to trace the missing material, which may well be on the world market of terrorists and gangsters?

John Reid: Of course, we are trying to do that to the greatest extent possible, not only as a national Government, but through international co-operation with our partners. Domestically, of course, we try to do that as well. All premises in the United Kingdom that use polonium-210 are strictly regulated by the Environment Agency. Some 130 premises might use that. That regulatory role includes protective security measures at the premises. The Environment Agency works in partnership with the police and the security services, who provide expert advice on security measures.

It is never possible to identify every potential loophole in any human organisation, but the House will want to know that there has been no recent report of the loss or theft of a polonium-210 source in England or Wales.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Is the Home Secretary aware of polonium-210 being used, either at home or elsewhere, by ingestion to cause death, let alone being used as a weapon of assassination? If he is aware of any such incidences, will he make the House aware of the details?

John Reid: As of today, I am not aware of any occasion on which the substance has been so used, certainly in this country. Even looking for papers on polonium-210 was not, in the first instance, an easy job. There did not appear to be a proliferation of academic papers on the subject. I am not aware of the substance having been used for any purposes in the manner indicated by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, I stress that we are not yet even at the stage where the police are telling me that there is definitely a third party involved, so in answering the question I do not want in any way to imply that the police accept that this suspicious death has been caused by a particular form of action by anyone.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Home Secretary is right to say that we should not point fingers. The sensationalist rush to judgment by some of the newspaper reporting in this case is deplorable, as is the use of British libel laws by powerful oligarchs in exile in London to stop full newspaper reporting of what they are up to. Will the Home Secretary confirm that the Prime Minister is alive to the huge national and parliamentary concern about this matter and will discuss it with Mr. Putin when they meet next week?

John Reid: I have no doubt that a range of issues will be discussed, and to some extent it will depend on developments between now and then. I can confirm, as I said earlier, that the Foreign Secretary has, through her Ministers, been in touch with the Russian Government, and the ambassador was brought in on 24 November. We are of the view, as we would be with any Government with whom we have good relations, that we should be able to expect the maximum co-operation and information from that Government in the event that we need it.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The opening sentence of the Moscow Times report on the case today says that

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