2 Coordinating an immediate response
4. The Government's counter-terrorism structure
can be crudely split into four "strands":
- The immediate operational response
is the responsibility of the Police Services and is run by the
designated Gold Commander. This is the normal response to a major
crime or police action and we did not consider this in the context
of the current inquiry.
- The Ministerial Committee on National Security,
International Relations and Development (NSID) which is chaired
by the Prime Minister is responsible for counter-terrorism policy;
- A Weekly Security Meeting which is chaired by
the Home Secretary and is attended by "senior representatives
of the intelligence agencies, the police, [and] key government
departments", allows the "tactical coordination of counter-terrorism
strategy, policy and communications" and the sharing of counter-terrorism
intelligence prior to an attack;
which is usually chaired by the Home Secretary or Prime Minister
and brings together "all of the various elements from the
various departments and intelligence agencies" to "supply
support, [and] make sure that in real time everybody is working
on the same information picture". COBRA is reactive, temporary
and ad hoc and formed in the immediate aftermath of an attack
for a "specific purpose [and] for a specific period".
COBRA is chiefly responsible for the production of the Commonly
Recognised Information Pattern, or CRIP. The CRIP helps ensure
that after an attack everybody involved in counter-terrorist activity
is sharing information and working from the same information.
5. COBRA's role is the coordination of information
after an emergency and all of the witnesses we have spoken to
have confirmed that it fulfils this function very well. Lord West
of Spithead, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State responsible
for Counter-Terrorism, told us that "the COBRA system is
fit for purpose";
the Rt. Hon. Dr John Reid MP called it "a hugely valuable
tool"; DCC Margaret
Wood told that she was "satisfied that COBRA is a very useful
means for the Government coordinating [a] response";
and Mr Andy Haymanwho has publicly criticised the work
that, "[information sharing] is a function it [COBRA] performs
as well as it can do".
Despite this we wanted to establish whether certain problems exist
in the way that COBRA operates in practice.
6. Sir Ian Blair suggested to us that the frequency
of COBRA meetings, especially after a major emergency, was unpredictable
and that COBRA could be recalled at "the whim of the Chair".
He suggested that if the Chairman recalled COBRA at the "wrong",
or at least at an unexpected time, this would interfere with the
work of "operational staff [who] need to go back and do things"
and could prevent decisions taken in COBRA being filtered through
organisations. He recommended a more standardised arrangement
with the first meeting held immediately (less than half-an-hour)
after the event, and then a "battle rhythm" of further
meetings every two hours.
Mr Andy Hayman also raised problems with the timings of COBRA
meetings, he suggested that if meetings were too frequent or not
on a prescribed schedule, the need to share the decisions taken
in the main COBRA made it possible that "all you are doing
is running around servicing meetings but you are not actually
7. While it is difficult to
hold regular meetings during an emergency situation as events
will inevitably render any fixed schedule redundant, we are surprised
that two former senior policemen raised concerns over the frequency
of COBRA meetings and suggested that the timing of meetings was
unpredictable. We recommend that as far as possible a fixed schedule
of regular meetings be maintained. Participants in COBRA meetings
need to feed back the results of the main meeting and implement
emergency plansthere is a danger, without a relatively
fixed schedule, that COBRA gets in the way of this and actively
hinders the operational response.
8. We have also heard that a degree of demarcation
exists between "operational" and "political"
actors within COBRA; the result is that the actual formal decision-making
process is less important than informal discussions, in pre-meetings
held beforehand. Mr Hayman told us that in practice:
You have a forum where the operational colleagues
sit together and thrash out what, from their professional experience,
they believe to be the options, and then they come into the main
COBRA and present that to minsters. I think that is a really good
way of working
What I thought was strange was that this
was going on underneath everyone's noses but it was as if it was
the unspoken word.
Mr Hayman further suggested that there might be merit
in formalising this structure and clarifying the mandates and
roles of everybody involved:
What would be helpful is if there was a two-tier
system where ministers, who have got a very clear mandate, are
allowed to be away from that
and then when it comes into
the main forum which is clearly their role they have all the information
and there is better informed decision-making.
9. Mr Hayman may be right to
suggest that in practice a "two-tier" system already
exists, but it is hard to see how changes to the institutional
structure would prevent this happening. Formalising this existing
working practice may produce better informed decision-making,
but we cannot see how further demarcation and "sub-groups"
would be avoided, negating the advantages which he claims would
be accrued. As long as everyone involved in a COBRA meeting is
aware of their roles (and we have no evidence that they are not)
then we do not see any major problems caused by the current informal
demarcation between "political" and "operational"
10. One of the roles of the Office for Security
and Counter-Terrorism is to organise exercises and simulations
of terrorist attacks; Lord West told us that the programme of
exercises has been improved and strengthened since he came into
office and that these are extremely useful in refining contingency
plans and allowing key actors experience of coordinating a government
response to a terrorist attack in a "COBRA-like" setting.
These exercises involve between 200 and 1000 police officers,
intelligence officers and military personnel. They are a large
undertaking; three take place each year and they each take between
three and nine months to organise.
All of our witnesses confirmed that they are an extremely valuable
tool in focusing minds.
11. Given the benefits of regular "as live"
exercises, and the time and effort needed to arrange them, we
were surprised to hear it suggested by both Mr Hayman and Sir
Ian Blair that the attendance of Ministers and Departmental Permanent
Secretaries was somewhat sporadic.
Mr Farr disagreed with this assessment telling us that, "they
[Home Secretary and Permanent Secretary] would both be present,
not always together but often one or other of them, at the COBRA
end of the exercise".
We cannot say for certain whether the Home Secretary attends every
counter-terrorism exercise. However, it remains troubling that
both Sir Ian Blair and Mr Andy Hayman, who would have played an
important role in organising and participating in such exercises,
were of the opinion that Ministers, and other key players, were
missing at crucial times; this cannot have inspired confidence
in the value of these exercises among operational actors.
12. We agree with Lord West
that exercises are vital in testing systems and structures before
an emergency, and we are therefore pleased that his tenure in
office has seen greater impetus given to this element of the counter-terrorism
response. It is imperative that key actors, especially Ministers
who will be taking major decisions, experience a full "COBRA
simulation" before facing a real-life incident. We are disappointed
that the perception exists among some operational actors that
the Home Secretary and other relevant Ministers have not participated
as fully as could be expected in the exercise programme. We strongly
recommend that in future, participation in such exercises becomes
a key part of Ministerial life.
13. As a forum for coordinating
information after a terrorist attack, COBRA is as good a system
as possible, and aside from the minor technical issues we have
noted concerning the timing of meetings and participation in exercises
we have no complaints with how it operates. While
we are convinced that it performs its function well, we are also
of the belief that there is a danger of overstating the importance
of COBRA which does not play a particularly active role in counter-terrorism
and does nothing to prevent an attack occurring. Dr John Reid
MP told us that during his tenure as Home Secretary he "wanted
to streamline the whole of our counter-terrorist operations and
a chain of command that went clearly up
to one Cabinet committee, which in my view should be entitled
and formed as a National Security Committee".
During this inquiry it has become apparent that it is the Weekly
Security Meeting chaired by the Home Secretary which in practice
is the key body in coordinating counter-terrorism activity, building
relationships between different actors and sharing intelligence;
it is this meeting which plays the major role in preventing an
attack, not just coordinating the response. Since 2005, Home Secretaries
have mandated attendance at these regular meetings and "institutionalised
coordination, [the] exchange of information, [the] grouping together
all of the counter-terrorist elements pan-government
because the threat against us is seamless".
14. The Weekly Security Meetinga
meeting of which we were previously unawaretherefore performs
many of the functions that a National Security Committee would
perform; in effect a de facto National Security
Committee already exists and functions, however discreetly.
15. While we are not placed
to comment on the effectiveness of the Weekly Security Meeting,
the lack of public awareness of its existence is troubling. The
public have a right to know who is protecting them from terrorist
threats and in turn, those protecting the public should expect
to be accountable and have their performance reviewed. To achieve
these aims we propose the transformation of the Weekly Security
Meeting into a more formalised, standing body to be known as the
National Security Committee, chaired by the Home Secretary or
Prime Minister who would invite outside, non-governmental experts
to attend as the situation arises. The work of this committee
should also be assisted by prominent appointed National Security
Advisers who could also be fully accountable to Parliament. Mr
Charles Farr said that "There are a number of proactive regular
quite a lot of steady state activity".
It is time to bring this activity further into the public domain.
The policing structure
16. As well as reforming the institutional side
of the government response, through the formation of the NSID
and the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, the events of
7 July 2005 also triggered a reform of the operational arm of
counter-terrorism measures. DCC Margaret Wood told us that since
2006, counter-terrorism policing has been concentrated in four
"large counter-terrorism unit[s] and also four counter-terrorism
replacing the old structure whereby all 52 forces of the United
Kingdom possessed Special Branches of varying sizes.
This new structure undoubtedly has many merits, not least in the
concentration of talent and increased focus it brings. DCC Wood
confirmed that: "we now have a very significant increase
in the numbers [of officers] who are able to tackle counter-terrorism;
not just in numbers but in expertise and experience".
Assistant Commissioner John Yates concurred in this assessment
of the value of counter-terrorism units, calling them an "excellent
system" and the "envy of the world".
17. We do not doubt the value of counter-terrorism
units; the old system of 52 separate special branchessome
of which would be under-funded and lacking counter-terrorism experienceis
far too unwieldy to deal with the "seamless" threat
that we now face. However, we do worry that this structure is
predicated on a somewhat artificial separation of counter-terrorism
policing. The police must
remember that while regional Counter Terrorism Units (CTUs) may
allow for an increase in the skills and expertise available to
disrupt and prevent attacks happening, this expertise will be
rendered useless without adequate information gathered from within
communities. We asked AC Yates whether
he would favour the further concentration of counter-terrorism
policing through the creation of a National Terrorist Agency;
he said that he would not because: "the real power of the
current network is that it is embedded at the local level, where
it picks up local intelligence
I would be loath to remove
that a national agency could foresee".
We suggest that the creation
of "supra-regional" bodies also carries the risk of
breaking the vital link with local communities. Despite creating
regional bodies, the police must take every care to maintain the
links with local communities which will be at the core of any
18. We are confused as to why, if regional counter-terrorism
units are an "excellent system" they were not created
before 2006. Assistant Commissioner Yates told us that the "events
of 2005 provided the impetus to make this [the creation of CTUs]
was slightly contradicted by Sir Ian Blair. We asked him why it
took five years after September 2001 to establish regional units.
He gave many reasons why this process had taken this long:
Partly because it was quite a big thing to do; secondly
there was an awful lot of money to be found to do it; thirdly
there were long and difficult arguments inside ACPO and in my
view insufficient political will to drive the solution
19. We are not convinced that
the practical obstacles cited by Sir Ian Blair justify the delay
in implementing the regional counter-terrorism units. We would
like to know exactly when the development of regional counter-terrorism
units was first considered by the Home Office and police service.
We remain unclear as to how much impetus the events of 2005 provided
for this change. We must place on record our concern that the
Government and the police appear to have been lethargic in driving
through necessary reforms to the policing system, and that there
was insufficient political will to provide solutions. The Government
and enforcement institutions must be proactive and identify problems
themselves before a fatal attack acts as a catalyst for reform.
20. It has been suggested to us that Regional
Counter-Terrorism Units represent a "continuous compromise"
and a "middle ground as to what needs to be done".
Despite the praise that hasrightlybeen given to
the performance of CTUs, Mr Andy Hayman told us that it remains
the case that inter-force cooperation remains dependent on personal
relationships and gentlemen's agreements between police chief
this would not be a problem as chief constables would do everything
in their power to prevent, and minimise the damage caused by,
terrorist attacks; however, problems may arise if operations go
wrong. Sir Ian Blair told us that the operational primacy of the
Metropolitan Police in counter-terrorism operations is tacitly
acknowledged by all forces, but the chain of accountability and
responsibility is confused: "although there is a gentleman's
[between the Met and other forces]
would be a considerable chance of a lot of infighting afterwards
as to who was responsible for something going wrong
will have an awful lot of confusion on the ground if it has gone
21. Gentlemen's agreements are no basis for a
counter-terrorism policing structure, particularly when the lack
of a formal structure creates the possibility of confusion and
a lack of clear accountability. We have heard of two possible
solutions to this problem and ways to further reform the current
policing structure to adapt to the national, "seamless"
threat posed by terrorism.
22. The first solution, as suggested by Sir Ian
Blair, would merely require the formalisation of current practicerather
than tacitly acknowledging the primacy of the Metropolitan Police
in counter-terrorism operations, this status should be enshrined
in statute. While
this would not affect the immediate operational response, which
would remain the responsibility of the local force until support
was provided by specialist units of the Metropolitan Policethe
formalised primacy of the Metropolitan Police, enshrined in statute,
would make the lines of responsibility and chain of command clear;
"at the moment that the national co-ordinator declares for
executive action then there is no doubt that he, and through the
chain of command, the Metropolitan Police are responsible".
Sir Ian further suggested that rather than operational concerns
preventing this change there was "insufficient political
will to drive [this] solution".
23. Our evidence session with the Home Secretary
on 15 December gave credence to this remark. We asked the Home
Secretary whether he was in favour of this relatively simple move:
If someone said to me: "Here's the positive:
here's what we could do and here are the problems that we can
solve by enshrining this in law", fine, but it seems to me
to work very well at the moment without another Crime and Policing
24. While we do not advocate
change for change's sake, the fact that the current structure
appears to "work very well at the moment" should not
preclude improvements being made and we fear that is only when
things go wrong that weaknesses will be identified in the structure.
of the opinion that Sir Ian Blair has made a perfectly reasonable
suggestion. A relatively minor change in the law would greatly
clarify lines of accountability and responsibility without affecting
the immediate operational response, as in practice many forces
already rely on the Metropolitan Police for operational support.
The primacy of the Metropolitan Police Service in counter-terrorism
operations should be enshrined in statute.
25. A more radical solution would be to bypass
the problems caused by policing operations crossing regional or
national boundaries by creating a single, National Terrorism Agency.
In both newspaper articles and in oral evidence to us, Mr Andy
Hayman has called for a single agency which would bypass the reliance
on "good will and personalities"
that could hinder the response at present. He compared the current
policing structure with other enforcement agencies such as the
UK Border Agency and Serious and Organised Crime Agency which
have "a national remit where they can travel across the country
and not worry about force boundaries";
he suggested that the current structure, relying on cooperation
with local forces was a sub-optimum response; "provided you
have got good will and the personalities are right, it will work,
but you cannot have a structure based on that".
Mr Hayman also suggested that in practice a quasi-national agency,
effectively marshalled by the Metropolitan Police, already exists;
"those resources located around the country can be marshalled
anywhere within the country, you are actually operating a pseudo-national
Mr Hayman could not understand why, since his proposed reform
already existed in practice, the existing quasi-national structure
was not formalised to avoid all the problems that may be caused
by force boundaries and different jurisdictions.
26. We asked our witnesses about the value of
a separate "National Terrorism Agency". It was suggested
that while a single, unified agency may have some benefit in clarifying
chains of command and would replace a structure based on competing
jurisdictions and gentlemen's agreements, this solution may merely
create further, different problems.
27. Mr Charles Farr raised the issue that many
of the organisations which would be merged to form a national
agency, particularly existing intelligence agencies, "do
a lot more than counter-terrorism so you cannot brigade them together
for counter-terrorism without that having an impact on everything
else they do".
A national agency would merely shift the potential problems caused
by a lack of coordination to other areas of policy and operations.
He also could not see a "significant additional benefit from
the integration of the organisations to justify the very significant
and he did not think that that "the advantages of very big
organisations are proven".
Instead, he endorsed the current structure based on close cooperation
between many different organisations without formal mergers; "the
key point is, although organisationally separate, those [agencies]
work seamlessly together. They have joint sections and communicate
regularly every day".
DCC Margaret Wood concurred that the current system based on mutual
cooperation worked very well: "I would say that the relationship
between the security services and the Police Service has probably
never been better than it currently is both in terms of the personal
relationships and the way we are able to operate together".
28. Both Mr Farr and, in a separate session the
Home Secretary and Sir David Normington, Permanent Secretary,
Home Office contrasted the current structure in the United Kingdom,
which is based on separate organisations working closely together,
with the system in the USA which has merged many organisations
into the Department for Homeland Security. The Home Secretary
suggested that the merger of agencies in the USA has led to a
loss of expertise in other, non-counter terrorism areas, and that
the creation of the OSCT has allowed the consolidation of different
separate agencies towards a common goal without the loss of expertise
elsewhere. Sir David
Normington also highlighted that while the American system may
look simple, in reality it is not, "there [remains] a very
large number [of counter-terrorism agencies], the White House
is involved, the National Counterterrorism centre is involved,
the Department of Justice and a myriad of police forces".
Both Mr Farr and the Home Secretary were of the view that it would
not be beneficial to copy the American experience.
29. Successful counter-terrorism
measures will rely on organisations working closely together and
we are therefore pleased to hear that the many different bodies
working on counter-terrorist activity are to a very great extent
integrated. Whilst the creation of a National Terrorism Agency
would remove the problem of coordinating the work of 52 separate
police forces, we see no great operational benefits through the
formation of a single, national agency and the experience of the
USA suggests that such an action is not a panacea. The problems
which a National Terrorism Agency would claim to solve are, to
our eyes, overstated, while the problems that it could cause are
potentially very great. We remain convinced that police skills
and knowledge, rather than policing structures, are the key to
3 For the membership of NSID, see: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/secretariats/committees/nsid.aspx
Home Office Written Evidence: Letter to the Committee dated 29
COBRA is an acronym of "Cabinet Office Briefing Room A"
where the strategy group supposedly meets. COBRA is not an officially
recognised term and will therefore not be found in official documents
and evidence. The official name for the strategy group is the
Civil Contingencies Committee which is supported by a small secretariat
and may meet in Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR). However,
given the popular usage of "COBRA", unless otherwise
stated, COBRA will be used as a synonym for all of the Government's
immediate strategic response structure, particularly the Civil
Contingencies Committee. Back
Q 53 Back
Q 2 Back
Q 54 Back
Q 67 Back
See: 'Cobra, the UK emergency committee that makes a chaos out
of a crisis' The Times, 22 June 2009 Back
Q 209 Back
Q 253 Back
Q 259 Back
Q 254 Back
Q 222 Back
Q 201 Back
Q 202 Back
Q 5 and Q 37 Back
Qq 314-315 Back
Q 60; see also Q 41 Back
Q 120 Back
Q 46 Back
Q 45 Back
Q 310 Back
Q 69 Back
Q 126 Back
Q 69 Back
Q 129 Back
Q 128 Back
Q 275 Back
Q 270 Back
Q 212 and Q 272 Back
Q 272 and Q 274 Back
Q 270 Back
Q 271 Back
Q 275 Back
Oral evidence to the Committee: "The Work of the Home
Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165, Q 52 Back
Q 213 Back
Q 212 Back
Q 218 Back
Q 313 Back
Q 303 Back
Q 313 Back
Q 302 Back
Q 70 Back
Oral Evidence to the Committee, "The Work of the Home
Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165, Q 2 Back
Q 3 Back
Q 303, Q 296 and oral evidence to the Committee, "The
Work of the Home Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165,
Q 2 Back