The Home Office's Response to Terrorist Attacks - Home Affairs Committee Contents

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;[3]
  • 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;[4] and
  • COBRA[5] 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".[6] 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.[7]

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";[8] the Rt. Hon. Dr John Reid MP called it "a hugely valuable tool";[9] DCC Margaret Wood told that she was "satisfied that COBRA is a very useful means for the Government coordinating [a] response";[10] and Mr Andy Hayman—who has publicly criticised the work of COBRA[11]—conceded that, "[information sharing] is a function it [COBRA] performs as well as it can do".[12] 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".[13] 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"[14] 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)[15] after the event, and then a "battle rhythm" of further meetings every two hours.[16] 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 achieving anything".[17]

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 plans—there 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.[18]

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.[19]

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" actors.

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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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".[23] 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 … [create] … 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".[24] 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 of … all of the counter-terrorist elements pan-government … because the threat against us is seamless".[25]

14.  The Weekly Security Meeting—a meeting of which we were previously unaware—therefore 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 meetings … [and] … quite a lot of steady state activity".[26] 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 intelligence units",[27] replacing the old structure whereby all 52 forces of the United Kingdom possessed Special Branches of varying sizes.[28] 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".[29] 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".[30]

17.  We do not doubt the value of counter-terrorism units; the old system of 52 separate special branches—some of which would be under-funded and lacking counter-terrorism experience[31]—is 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 distinction … that a national agency could foresee".[32] 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 intelligence gathering.

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] happen"[33] which 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 … [34]

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".[35] Despite the praise that has—rightly—been 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 constables.[36] Ordinarily 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 agreement … [between the Met and other forces] … there would be a considerable chance of a lot of infighting afterwards as to who was responsible for something going wrong … you will have an awful lot of confusion on the ground if it has gone wrong".[37]

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 practice—rather than tacitly acknowledging the primacy of the Metropolitan Police in counter-terrorism operations, this status should be enshrined in statute.[38] 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 Police—the 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".[39] Sir Ian further suggested that rather than operational concerns preventing this change there was "insufficient political will to drive [this] solution".[40]

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 Bill.[41]

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. We are 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"[42] 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";[43] 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".[44] 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 outfit anyway".[45] 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.[46]

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".[47] 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 disruption"[48] and he did not think that that "the advantages of very big organisations are proven".[49] 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".[50] 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".[51]

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.[52] 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".[53] Both Mr Farr and the Home Secretary were of the view that it would not be beneficial to copy the American experience.[54]

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 preventing terrorism.

3   For the membership of NSID, see:  Back

4   Home Office Written Evidence: Letter to the Committee dated 29 October. Back

5   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

6   Q 53 Back

7   Ibid. Back

8   Q 2 Back

9   Q 54 Back

10   Q 67 Back

11   See: 'Cobra, the UK emergency committee that makes a chaos out of a crisis' The Times, 22 June 2009 Back

12   Q 209 Back

13   Q 253 Back

14   Ibid. Back

15   Q 259 Back

16   Q 254 Back

17   Q 222 Back

18   Q 201 Back

19   Q 202 Back

20   Q 5 and Q 37 Back

21   Qq 314-315 Back

22   Q 60; see also Q 41 Back

23   Q 120 Back

24   Q 46 Back

25   Q 45 Back

26   Q 310 Back

27   Q 69 Back

28   Ibid. Back

29   Ibid. Back

30   Q 126 Back

31   Q 69 Back

32   Q 129 Back

33   Q 128 Back

34   Q 275 Back

35   Q 270 Back

36   Q 212 and Q 272 Back

37   Q 272 and Q 274 Back

38   Q 270 Back

39   Q 271 Back

40   Q 275 Back

41   Oral evidence to the Committee: "The Work of the Home Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165, Q 52 Back

42   Q 213 Back

43   Q 212 Back

44   Ibid. Back

45   Q 218 Back

46   Ibid. Back

47   Q 313 Back

48   Q 303 Back

49   Q 313 Back

50   Q 302 Back

51   Q 70 Back

52   Oral Evidence to the Committee, "The Work of the Home Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165, Q 2  Back

53   Q 3 Back

54   Q 303, Q 296 and oral evidence to the Committee, "The Work of the Home Office", Tuesday 15 December, HC 165, Q 2 Back

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