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30 Nov 2006 : Column 1234

Can the Home Secretary give the House an assurance that, once this episode is put behind us, the general issue of the availability and ready transport of radioactive materials will be considered with redoubled effort and the appropriate clinical priority attached? I discovered this morning that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s database on illicit trafficking has recorded more than 650 incidents since 1993 of trafficking in nuclear or other radioactive material. Those are just the incidents that the IAEA knows about, and the House will be keen to ensure that the Government will redouble their efforts to address that issue.

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman and he is correct that there is a BA helpline for anyone who thinks that they may have travelled on one of the planes. If necessary—and the numbers should be falling all the time—the helpline will refer them to NHS Direct, which will monitor them and refer them on if appropriate. The helpline number is 0845 6040171, and the website also has information.

The hon. Gentleman asks about cross-reference to the police. Within all the exigencies and proprieties of data protection and privacy, the agencies are liaising to refer people onwards if they have some useful information.

As regards radioactive materials, I told the House in my last statement that there are probably between 130 and 150 sites where the material might be used in some form in the UK. As far as we can make out, there has been no loss or theft from any of those sites. That is our concern in the short term, but the hon. Gentleman correctly points out that in the medium term this incident will enhance our awareness of the dangers of the proliferation of radioactive materials, and we will certainly look to learn lessons from it.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend been advised that the radioactive footprint in the aircraft indicates polonium-210 or other radioactive material?

John Reid: Of the 24 sites that have so far been investigated, contamination has been found at 12. There are two stages to the process. The first is the detection of some radioactive contamination and the second, which takes a little longer, is studying it to see which form it is. In most of the cases that I have identified, the contamination is polonium-210. It is at very low levels in some cases, and higher in others, although none is a health hazard of any significance. As my hon. Friend may know, the radiation output is measured in becquerels, which is the rate of radioactive deterioration of the material, or the number of clicks on a Geiger counter, for those who are not scientifically minded. The range of contamination of polonium-210 found so far is quite significant, but even at the higher limits it is not a huge risk to anyone.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Does not the existence of the traces on the aircraft suggest at least that that dangerous isotope can be carried on to them without being detected by all the highly sophisticated security equipment that we have at British airports at present? Is not that a loophole that the Government should look closely at closing as soon as possible?

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John Reid: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, we should try to learn all the lessons that we can from this incident. He will understand if I do not confirm or deny any technical aspects of the security precautions, but I assure him that we are concerned not only with the investigation but with what lessons we may learn from it. The willingness of the public to help in the investigation is illustrated by the fact that the staff who have been asked to help the police with their inquiries have been very helpful.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): During pre-legislative scrutiny of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, we tried to imagine the unimaginable, but we failed to imagine this event. We did think about the relationship between security, health and transport. Has my right hon. Friend yet had an opportunity to assess that relationship following this event and the response in terms of civil contingencies and emergency planning? When he has done that assessment, will he advise the House whether he is satisfied with that response?

John Reid: I can tell my hon. Friend that I am happy with the co-operation that we have received from all of my colleagues in government, as witnessed by the fact that so many of them are in their places on the Front Bench. Ministers have attended Cobra regularly and worked closely together. We can learn lessons from the incident and we will have our proceedings monitored as a process, apart from the practical efforts that are in hand, so that we can see what lessons can be learned about working together.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It is believed that some of the poisoning may have taken place in various residences and other properties in my constituency. Obviously, the media have focused hitherto on the very human tragedy of this case, but I am concerned about the safety and welfare of my constituents and of those who work in and visit my constituency. I appreciate that the Home Secretary may not be able to go into great detail just now, but will he say on what basis a former senior KGB officer was given asylum in this country? Presumably, many other people from across the world are in the same boat. Should we not now give serious consideration to ensuring that people who come to this country and who intend to remain political agitators against other sovereign states are not allowed to stay?

John Reid: I am not entirely sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How long does it take polonium to decay and become harmless?

John Reid: It has a half life of 138 days.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Has the Home Secretary considered liaising with his counterparts in other countries to determine whether people have died under similar circumstances elsewhere? Given the international nature of the inquiries, and if there have been such deaths, would not the pooling of information be of benefit to all?

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John Reid: To the best of my knowledge, the only other death in similar circumstances happened back in the 1950s. However, I have no doubt that the historical and medical evidence will be reviewed as the case proceeds. At the moment, we have very little information.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): NHS Direct and the Health Protection Agency have evidently been doing an excellent job in identifying, tracing and testing people. My right hon. Friend has explained what people on the relevant flights can do and how they can contact British Airways, but has he asked the airline to take proactive steps to trace people who may have been affected?

John Reid: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been actively involved with British Airways, which has assisted us to the best of its ability—to the extent that it has agreed, even before calls are made to NHS Direct or the health authorities, to facilitate the reception of telephone calls to confirm whether people were on particular flights. I think that the system is working satisfactorily, although I hope that people will understand the problems that arise from the sheer number of travellers involved. As I said earlier, since around 1 November the three planes that I mentioned have carried something in excess of 30,000 people to 221 destinations. However, British Airways is making every effort to respond positively in very difficult circumstances.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, and thank him for giving us advance sight of it. I agree that this is a worrying time for many travellers. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was contacting the Governments of the other countries in which the planes may have landed. He specified four aircraft in his statement, but will he say whether any other aircraft or airports in the UK have been tested? Are there any plans to do so?

John Reid: As far as the aircraft are concerned, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that two British Airways planes at Heathrow and one at Moscow airport are involved. In addition, an aeroplane with the Russian airline Transaero landed at Heathrow this morning, and we know of one other Russian plane in which we think that we might be interested. Other planes may be involved that we do not know about at present, but those are the five that we know of. The hon. Gentleman also asked about airports in this country. Although we believe that we need concentrate only on Heathrow, several European airports might require investigation. The investigation is dynamic and is changing by the minute, let alone the hour. If we become aware of any further problems, we will send out an immediate alert and seek to discover the whereabouts or transit of any aeroplane that might be involved.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): If something like 33,000 passengers did indeed make journeys on the aeroplanes in question, it follows that several thousand would be citizens of other countries. Another possibility is that many British citizens who flew in those planes will still be on holiday or working overseas. What steps are the
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Government taking to ensure that other Governments and British citizens abroad are able to receive the sort of advice that NHS Direct makes available in the UK?

John Reid: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and her staff at the Foreign Office are in touch with our overseas posts, and they will send out what information they consider necessary. If specific health or transport advice is needed in any particular case, they will ensure that the necessary information is supplied.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): May I return to the second question asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, which has not yet been answered? It had to do with the safety of political dissidents and émigrés in London and the UK. Thousands of such people have been given asylum in this country, which is seen as a safe haven for those with political views that are unpopular in their own countries. However, if dissidents and émigrés are being assassinated in public or semi-public places in London, this country will no longer be considered to be a safe haven. In my opinion, this incident has had a severely negative impact on this country’s reputation as well as Russia’s.

John Reid: I find the hon. Gentleman’s final sentiment—that this incident somehow reflects badly on this country and its services—quite extraordinary. We understand that, although our traditions of liberty and free speech sometimes cause great difficulties—for the British Government, as well as for others—they are often what people come here for. It is not possible to safeguard people in this country 100 per cent., whether they are dissidents in their own countries or not. I wish that it were, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do our utmost to ensure that everyone who is given
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citizenship or asylum here is protected to the best of our ability. To cast aspersions as he has is to criticise, unduly and unfairly, our security services, police and all the many people who are trying to ensure that this remains a safe country where opinions can be stated without fear or favour. I assure him that the investigation will be carried out in that way.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): My question follows on from the one asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Britain must remain a safe haven for people fleeing political persecution, but does the Home Secretary agree that political dissidents who become agitators can, by their actions, undermine our national security? In those circumstances, should we not have a review of the people who are allowed to stay here?

John Reid: The difficulty is that the inference to be drawn from any answer to that question must be that we have already decided the outcome of the investigation. We must not get ahead of ourselves in that way. I stress that the police have not yet gone beyond saying that the death was suspicious. They will follow up all leads, some of which, as I said earlier, are changing by the hour. We are finding different sites to look at and I have no doubt that, by the time I leave the Chamber, the numbers that I have given in my statement could have changed again. We are giving the House information about this or that plane. We may discover that some, or a greater number, of the planes that we believed were of interest to us are not the right ones. That is the nature of an investigation and I urge the House to understand that while we are open as possible on such a subject—as is right, here in the cradle of democracy—we must nevertheless be responsible in using the information. However eager we are to build up a picture of conclusion in our minds, we may actually be only at the very early stages of the investigation.

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NATO Summit

12.50 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, I should like to make a statement on the NATO summit in Riga, which I attended in support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Before going further, I should stress that there was overwhelming consensus among the leaders of the 26 NATO countries on the crucial importance of strong collective defence to meet the security challenges of the 21st century. They reaffirmed NATO’s central role in defending our countries and our common values.

The UK had three priorities for the Riga summit: ensuring success in NATO’s military operations, notably in Afghanistan; improving NATO’s expeditionary capability; and improving NATO’s ability to work more closely with civilian partner organisations and the rest of the international community. I am pleased to report that, despite the complexity of some of those issues, and some genuine and legitimate differences of approach between member countries, real progress was achieved in all three areas.

The primary focus of the summit was NATO’s current operations. Today, more than 50,000 NATO personnel are deployed in six missions on three continents. More than half of them—32,000—are in Afghanistan, which remains NATO’s top priority. All 26 NATO member states reconfirmed their commitment to the mission. There was a shared recognition that success in Afghanistan is crucial not just for the Afghan people and for regional and global security, but for NATO itself. As the Prime Minister has said, now that NATO has taken on this vital but challenging mission, its credibility is at stake.

The summit offered an opportunity to take stock of progress in Afghanistan, particularly since 2003 when NATO took on the mission, in the form of the international security assistance force—ISAF. In place of the despotic rule of the Taliban, the country now has a democratic Government. The economy is growing, and infrastructure and basic services are being rebuilt. At last, after 30 years of conflict, the everyday lives of millions of Afghans are visibly improving. According to UN figures, 4.5 million refugees have returned to rebuild their lives.

Of course, at the same time, the mission faces serious challenges. The Taliban and the drug lords are determined to fight to resist progress and they continue to exploit the impunity they have enjoyed in the south. ISAF forces have seen hard fighting over the summer and have taken significant casualties, but they faced down the Taliban and reinforced the Afghan Government in extending legitimate governance and the rule of law throughout the country.

We know that some member countries have had reservations about the mission. Their domestic audiences have been concerned about the intensity of the fighting and have raised questions about the prospects for success, but even after this difficult summer everyone at Riga agreed that the mission in Afghanistan has to succeed. We should not underestimate the significance, at this moment, of all member countries explicitly reaffirming their support
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for the mission and their common pledge to provide ISAF with the forces and flexibility to ensure the continued success of this vital mission.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led calls for our allies to reconsider how they might do more to provide such forces and flexibility. There was a welcome signal from a number of nations that they would lift the national caveats on the use of their forces. There were also pledges of additional force contributions. I cannot give full details today; Members will have seen reports in the press, but we must wait for national Governments to confirm those commitments in due course.

The pledges made at Riga are a small step in the context of a 32,000-strong mission when the ideal, as I have been impressing on my NATO opposite numbers for months, is that there should be no national caveats at all—something that I am proud to say is true of our 6,000 personnel in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that even if those are small steps, they are steps in the right direction. Before Riga, the Secretary-General estimated that 85 per cent. of ISAF’s force requirements had been met; that has now risen to 90 per cent. and we must continue to work until we reach 100 per cent.

We must also continue to work on the wider challenge of transforming NATO. The threat facing NATO members has changed dramatically since the alliance was formed in 1949. There is agreement that NATO must transform its capabilities to meet the challenges of a changing world. We must become more agile and more efficient.

That is easy to say in theory, but harder to achieve in practice in the context of an alliance of 26 countries each with its own approach and its own sovereignty. There are signs of progress, however. Yesterday, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe declared the NATO response force fully operational. The NRF was established following the 2002 summit to provide a high-readiness force able to deploy quickly where required, to carry out the full range of alliance missions. That is a key development. Even before the force reached full operating capability it showed its worth, in the relief effort following the Pakistan earthquake last year. We also agreed new initiatives to increase the strategic airlift available to allies, to enhance co-operation between our special forces, to improve alliance logistics support and to streamline the NATO command structure.

Of course, as I have said countless times from this Dispatch Box, success in the type of operation NATO is now undertaking will not be achieved by military means alone. That is especially clear in Afghanistan. The international community needs to work in a co-ordinated way across all the different lines of operation—security, governance, law and order, reconstruction and development, and counter-narcotics—to deliver a truly comprehensive approach.

That comprehensive approach is not unique to Afghanistan. It is equally important in Kosovo where KFOR has been crucial not just in maintaining security but in supporting the political process. Such an approach will be needed in the majority of operations the international community undertakes in future.

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