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2 July 2007 : Column 671


3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the weekend’s events. First and foremost, I am sure that all Members agree that our top priority must be the success of the investigation and any subsequent prosecution. For that reason, we will all want to avoid speculating about the details of what is still a fast-moving investigation.

The facts as they have been reported to me by the police and other agencies are as follows. In the early hours of 29 June, an ambulance crew reported a suspicious Mercedes vehicle outside a nightclub in the Haymarket in central London. The vehicle contained significant amounts of petrol, gas cylinders and nails. Explosives officers from the Metropolitan police counter terrorism command were called and manually disabled the means of detonation. During the course of their investigation on Friday, police learned of a second Mercedes vehicle that was issued with a parking ticket at about 2.30 am on 29 June. The car was parked in Cockspur street, London, close to the location of the first vehicle. The second vehicle was taken to a pound in Hyde Park at about 3.30 am that day. The vehicle contained similar materials to those found in the first, including a significant amount of fuel, gas canisters and a quantity of nails. As with the first device, the vehicle was swiftly made safe by explosives officers. Police soon confirmed that the vehicles were linked. Further examination will reveal additional detail about the damage that the devices might have caused if detonated, but at this stage police believe they were potentially viable devices that could have caused significant injury or loss of life.

At 3.15 pm on 30 June, a Jeep Cherokee drove into a front door at the check-in area of the terminal building at Glasgow airport and caught fire on impact. One member of the public sustained minor injuries in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Police have confirmed that the incident at the airport was linked to the vehicles discovered in London. Investigations into these incidents have involved police forces across the United Kingdom. To date, six individuals have been arrested in connection with the events: one at Glasgow airport, a further two in Glasgow, two in Staffordshire—north of junction 16 on the M6—and one in Liverpool. One further individual of interest remains in a critical condition in hospital. Searches have already been carried out in at least 19 locations, but as I have already said, this is a fast-moving investigation.

I am sure that the House will want to join me in thanking all those involved in the response to these incidents: the ambulance crew, whose vigilance potentially averted an attack; the police, particularly the explosives officers who manually disabled the device in the Haymarket; and the Security Service. In addition, the response from the public and the business community, including staff at airports, has been excellent in support of the police and other emergency services. I would also like to thank colleagues in Scotland and, internationally, in the United States and in Europe for their messages and offers of support.

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Since Friday morning, the Government have held four meetings of Cobra, which were chaired by the Prime Minister and me and attended by ministerial colleagues from key Government Departments, and the police and intelligence agencies. Our priority has been to co-ordinate the necessary responses to protect the public.

Turning now to that response under way across the country, the police have substantially stepped up protective security measures, including: high-visibility patrols, including armed response vehicles; the increased use of stop-and-search powers for vehicles and pedestrians; and increased physical protection around airport terminal buildings, including tighter controls on access roads and the installation of new barriers, in conjunction with airport operators and the Department for Transport. As ever, these measures are designed to maximise public safety while minimising disruption to normal life. This action supplements the substantial programme of work already under way to protect high-risk locations. Police counter-terrorism security advisers have already advised a range of crowded places in recent months, including over 450 major sporting venues and around 400 shopping centres.

As the House will be aware, the UK national threat level was raised from severe to critical on Saturday 30 June by the joint terrorism analysis centre. JTAC sets threat levels based on a comprehensive analysis of all intelligence relating to international terrorism.

Terrorism is a serious threat to us all. We must ensure that our resources, capability and legislation support our common endeavour to defend the shared values of this country from terror. To that end, we have doubled expenditure on counter-terrorism since September 2001. Work as part of the current comprehensive spending review will further assess the expenditure necessary. We have started a full consultative review of counter-terrorism legislation, with a view to a Bill later this year. This process will continue. We have refocused the Home Office, developed the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism and established a weekly security board, which I chair, to co-ordinate the efforts of key Departments and agencies. Across Government, Ministers will work together to oversee the delivery of this complex package of measures.

Let us be clear: terrorists are criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religious backgrounds. Terrorists attack the values that are shared by all law-abiding citizens. As a Government, as communities and as individuals we need to ensure that the message of the terrorists is rejected. I very much welcome the strong messages of condemnation that we have heard throughout the weekend from community leaders across the country. It is through our unity that the terrorists will eventually be defeated.

In closing my statement, I would also like to express my admiration and thanks to members of the public in this country, in all our communities, for their patience and measured response to these events. My aim as Home Secretary is to allow the British public to live their lives as they would wish, within the law. The fact that people have been prepared to go about those lives as normally as possible this weekend sends the strongest message to those who wish to destroy our way of life and our freedoms that we will not be intimidated by terror.

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David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): May I start by welcoming the Home Secretary to her new post, especially in these uniquely difficult circumstances? She has handled this entire affair to date with a calmness and dignity on which I congratulate her.

I join the Home Secretary and offer the thanks and congratulations of the Opposition to our emergency and security services for their actions in stopping these evil acts, which were planned with the clear aim of taking possibly hundreds of innocent lives. Without the keenly observant eye of one ambulance crew and the rapid response of our police force and bomb disposal crews, we could have been discussing a major tragedy today.

I wish to single out for praise the civilians who intervened to support the police at Glasgow airport. Without their action in helping to subdue a subject, in circumstances of violence and extreme risk, there might have been a much worse tragedy. In these days, when the word “hero” is bandied around for the most minor of achievements, a real hero is someone who runs towards danger while others run away, and who puts their life at risk to help others. These people did that, and I formally ask the Government to consider recognising their action appropriately.

All that being said, we have been very, very lucky: only the actions of a few people, fortuitously in the right place at the right time, prevented us from facing more than one major loss of life in the past three days. Today is a day for unity, not for criticism, so I have only two questions—of which I gave the Home Secretary notice over the weekend.

On 22 April, a newspaper carried a report produced by JTAC that predicted a high risk of an attack at the handover from the previous Prime Minister to the current one. Despite that, the threat level was not raised above severe, which is the level at which it stands most of the time. Why was that, and what were the implications for the police forces and security agencies of that lower level?

Once alerted to the threat, it is clear that the agencies responded remarkably quickly. Although numerous threats have been foiled, on which they deserve our heartfelt congratulations, we must face the fact that three attempted atrocities have occurred without warning. That means that the Home Secretary will have the difficult task of reviewing the strategy and resourcing of the entire counter-terrorist effort. If that leads to a significant increase in the size of the single intelligence budget, and associated police budgets, in the current comprehensive spending review, that decision will have the Opposition’s clear support.

Over the weekend, the Prime Minister said:

We agree. But we should remember that the liberty of the subject is the defining characteristic of the British way of life. So we should not give it up without very good cause indeed.

I am very pleased that the current Prime Minister and the current Home Secretary have not reacted to this very real threat with hasty or knee-jerk responses. Handling this enemy will take very cool judgment, very careful analysis, and very thorough planning if we are
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to defeat them without giving up what we all hold dear. This will take a long time, and will need co-operation between the Government and Opposition—a process that has already started.

Let me conclude by repeating what I said on 7 July 2005. It was true then, and it is true now, and I see the Prime Minister nodding. Whatever the origin and whatever the motive of the terrorism that walks our streets,

Jacqui Smith: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome and support. I very much appreciated, too, the support he showed me as I briefed him over the weekend. I strongly agree about the bravery of members of the public, alongside members of the emergency services, and I shall certainly look carefully at his suggestion about how we can recognise that bravery.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a particular point about press reports of JTAC analysis. Just as we must avoid speculation about individual details of this operation, so too must we resist the temptation to draw conclusions from leaks of individual bits of intelligence analysis. It is JTAC’s job to look at all available intelligence from home and abroad over a period of time to assess the threat level. The fact that the threat level for the past year has been severe is a symbol or representation of the serious level of threat that the intelligence suggested we face.

I would have a small disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman about it being a routine threat level—it is not; it represents a sustained level of threat and police and other activity has been commensurate with that.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman expressed support for increased funding. The doubling of such expenditure since 9/11 has of course enabled us to double the number of agents in the security services and to provide important support for counter-terrorism work in the police force, too.

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words; it is most certainly my intention to continue this important work in co-operation not only with Opposition Members but with everybody else in the country who can help us to tackle the threat of terrorism.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement and for the updates she provided over the past few days as events unfolded. I welcome her to her new position and recognise that she had to deal with some early challenges within hours of taking it up.

I wholeheartedly join the right hon. Lady in recognising the vigilance of the public and the intelligence services, and the valour of members of the public, emergency services and police. That vigilance and valour, combined with an almost uncanny stroke of good luck, appear to have helped to avert the worst this time. Naturally, I, too, am delighted that neither she nor the Prime Minister appears, at the moment at least, to be invoking the events of recent days as a reason to argue immediately for new legislation. Does she agree that legislation is
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only ever a small part of our collective response and that excessive or ill-considered legislation can increase feelings of alienation and resentment, within precisely the communities we need on our side?

I strongly agree with the Home Secretary that unity is essential, not only to thwart criminal extremists themselves but to help to enhance a feeling of solidarity between and within our various communities. Does she agree that the long-term dilemma facing us all is how we can deal with the grievances of terrorist extremists without in any way legitimising them? Although there is never any excuse for such violence, does she agree that we need a calm, candid approach to our policies at home and abroad, to work out how best to bolster moderate Muslim opinion and successfully isolate the views of the criminal extremists, as the Prime Minister suggested this weekend?

Finally, in the light of the attack at Glasgow airport, will the Home Secretary confirm that pilot studies are under way for installing new vehicle access barriers at Victoria and Waterloo railway stations? In February, I asked what steps were being taken to roll out those pilots at other stations and airports and was told that a report would be completed in April, but I do not think it has yet been published. Can the Home Secretary confirm that the report is now complete and that it will be acted on with redoubled urgency?

Jacqui Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and the support he showed during our conversations over the weekend for the response of the emergency services.

I made it clear in my statement that I certainly do not see legislation as being the sole way in which we will tackle the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, it is a very important way to address terrorism. That is why, as I suggested in my statement, I will take forward my predecessor’s proposals with respect to the counter-terrorism Bill that we hope to introduce later this year.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the way in which we deal with extremism, I supported his second point, but I did not support the argument that it seemed that he was nearly making—that somehow or other a grievance, real or otherwise, could ever justify a murderous activity. If he was arguing—as I think he was in the second part of his remarks—that the task for us all, in all communities, is to isolate the extremists who propagate and carry out terrorism, I strongly agree with him. That is why work has already started in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Working with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Foreign Secretary, I want to renew and bolster that work, which will be crucial in addressing the threat of terrorism.

There is not a single solution to terrorism. That is why I emphasised the need for resources, capability and legislation and the need to win the battle of ideas in order to tackle terrorism. On the specific point about security in train stations, some additional protective security measures, especially high-visibility policing, are being taken in some of our major transport hubs. I will certainly go back to the report that the hon. Gentleman mentions, pursue it, and perhaps contact him on the issue.

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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Twenty-three hours and 59 minutes after the horrific attack on Saturday, Glasgow airport was fully operational. No doubt that is down to the hard work of the staff, the management and the emergency services, but it is also down to the general public, who were extremely tolerant and understanding. Many of them will be denied compensation for the loss of their holidays, so will my right hon. Friend use her good offices to encourage the insurance companies and the travel agents to look sympathetically at any claims that may come from those people?

Finally, I travelled through Glasgow airport today and the public and the staff there had a clear message for the people of the UK and beyond. It was a simple request: “Will you all come back again?”

Jacqui Smith: I completely agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes about the considerable hard work and stoicism shown by the staff and others at Glasgow airport, and I join him in congratulating them on that. I have no doubt that both the travel and insurance companies will have heard the plea that he makes on behalf of his constituents and others and I am sure that they will bear that carefully in mind. His point about returning to Scotland is important. I know that Visit Scotland is working hard to demonstrate that Scotland is open for business as usual. Given what a very beautiful country it is, I am sure that many people will want to take the opportunity to visit it as soon as possible.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): May I associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in relation to the Home Secretary? It must be a tumultuous time to be taking over the post. For my part, I think that she and the Prime Minister have spoken constructively, with a firm eye to the future—we obviously need to look at these things in an entirely different light, given some of the mistakes that have been made over the past five or six years on community matters.

Both the Haymarket and Cockspur street lie in my constituency, which also contains many of the country’s highest profile terrorist targets, and we must not forget that many residents live cheek by jowl with the embassies and other establishments in central London that are possible targets for car bombers. I appreciate that it is still very early days, but is the Home Secretary giving serious consideration to setting up a ring of steel to protect residents and businesses in the west end similar to that which has operated in the City of London over the past decade and a half?

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