Internal Security

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 22nd March 2004.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 22nd March 2004

What assessment he has made of the implications of events in Madrid for security arrangements in London and other major British cities.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We have been on a heightened state of alert for some considerable time and remain so. A month ago, I confirmed that there was a substantial increase of 50 per cent. in the surveillance capacity of the Security Service. Last Friday, I announced £15 million extra for the special branch, £12 million of which is going into the counter-terrorism surveillance unit of the Met police. Last Friday, I attended the meeting of Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in Brussels and pressed hard for action rather than simply words and for genuine co-operation on the key areas with which we have been dealing domestically. I say to all those who are pronouncing publicly that, although it is understandable that people are raising issues that have been raised previously in the aftermath of the tragedy in Madrid—we all send our condolences personally and through our political parties to all those affected—it is absolutely crucial that people recognise that security and intelligence capacity and the work of special branch have not changed following the incident a week last Thursday. Although people are extremely worried, they need to know that every possible step is being taken to secure the interests of the United Kingdom.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I recognise the difficult job that the Home Secretary has to do, but he must be aware of people's concerns when they hear, for example, the head of the local government emergency planners saying that we are "very, very badly prepared" for a Madrid-scale attack. The head of the Fire Brigades Union says:

"As of now, we are not a lot better than we were on September 11th 2001".

The chief constable of the British Transport police says that the infrastructure of his force is "crumbling" due to a lack of funding. If those on whom we rely for our defence are not confident that they have the resources or officers required to do the job effectively, how can the public have that confidence?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

On the British Transport police, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that that it is funded through the operators. It behoves not simply the Government, but all those engaged in maintaining the economic, social, political and humanitarian life of this country, to make a contribution. A substantial amount of the £330 million expansion in civil contingencies that we announced a year ago has been spent on things not affected by the particular society that the individual concerned chaired.

I understand the aggravation. Despite the 35 per cent. increase in the civil contingencies grant in 2001, it has been agreed and announced—although the Emergency Planning Society does not agree with this—that it would be integrated into the normal local government grant system. There is an ongoing conflict, but it should not hide the fact that £56 million extra has been put into the fire service, £85 million has already been spent by the NHS, and there has been a massive expansion in the training of police, fire and ambulance men, all of which has been spelt out to the House at least three times by me in statements over the past year. In addition, the massive expansion in the capacity of those who can use training suits and the exercises that we have undertaken, including the one last September, have all been designed to ensure that robust resilience is in place. I repeat, however, that it is not resilience in picking up the pieces after an attack that will save this country, but the security and intelligence to prevent an attack from occurring.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

While recognising the importance of trying to protect all our people from international terrorism and that my right hon. Friend is doing precisely that, does he nevertheless accept that compulsory identity cards in Spain in no way stopped the terrible slaughter there? In view of some of the press reports that appeared yesterday and today, would he not be over-hasty in trying to bring the cards to this country? I do not believe that they are a deterrent to terrorism.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am familiar with my hon. Friend's views on the subject. A question on identity cards has been tabled and, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer further questions then. Suffice it to say that the system that we have in process is nothing like the Spanish ID card. I have spelt out to the House that I would not recommend a system on the European model. It is not based on biometrics and does not have a clean database, so it cannot prevent people from having multiple identities. The security services are clear—anyone who has watched television or read the papers over the past few days will be familiar with what has been said—that multiple identity is the stock in trade of international terrorism. Terrorists use it effectively and we have to take steps to stop them.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

We should recognise that credit is due to MI5, MI6 and the police on their success so far in preventing and deterring the threat that we have faced from al-Qaeda in the past decade. Nevertheless, the comments of the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister, the head of MI5 and Sir John Stevens, the head of the Met, have led people to believe that an attack is inevitable in this country at some point. That makes the comments of Patrick Cunningham that Mr. Heath raised very important. Mr. Cunningham was not just talking about resources. He went on to say that Britain was gripped by "a culture of complacency", and that local authority planners, who are supposed to play a vital role in the aftermath of disaster, are unlikely to be able to

"offer anything other than a token gesture of support".

He is the leader 500 emergency planners. Are they all completely wrong?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No, they are not all completely wrong, but I put out a challenge to the emergency planning officers and those who purport to speak on their behalf. If an emergency planning officer believes that something is inadequate, that he does not have the resources, that his local authority, which employs him in this case, is not doing its job and that the new regional structures that we have put in place and invested in, with back-up from the Ministry of Defence, are inadequate, why not do something about it? What is the point in being an emergency planning officer if one is not doing the job at local level? If those officers do not have the resources, they can raise the issue.

Has any Member of the House been approached by their local emergency planning officer? Has any of those officers written to me? Has any of them written to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is responsible for civil contingencies, or to the Minister for Local and Regional Government? How many of those officers have raised their concerns? We know of those concerns because we read them in the papers yesterday, we saw those people on the television and we heard them on the radio, and we will happily take them seriously when they propose their own plan and suggestions for improvement. That is what is called a civil society linking up with a political society, so that not everything is the responsibility of those sitting in Westminster.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he is the Home Secretary and has overall responsibility for this area. He has to pay attention to those people. They are, after all, the people in the front line who will carry out his work in the event of a disaster. However, it is not only the people in the front line who are critical of what he is doing. Britain's emergency preparations have been criticised by the Defence Committee, the National Audit Office and the Prime Minister's strategy unit, as well as the Emergency Planning Society. Are they all wrong too, or should they all do things for themselves as well?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No, all of them have made sensible, practical suggestions that we have taken on board. That includes suggestions made by members of the joint Home Affairs and Defence Committee, which I attended just two weeks ago. Those proceedings are on the record; they lasted two hours—that is called democracy.

When people have sensible, practical suggestions, we will implement them, but I repeat what the chairman of the Conservative party, Dr. Fox, said last night on Radio 4 when asked where the resources are to come from: we will have to take them from some other area. That is the balance that we have to strike—judging how much money in the NHS goes towards emergency planning rather than towards normal treatment. The same is equally true of local government resources and of the allocation of resources from my own budget. Paying for training, decontamination, protective suits and the exercises that we have undertaken, as well as for the fire and ambulance services, which I have already mentioned, has to be put together with maintaining the basic service, which is, after all, the lifeblood that we are trying to protect.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that money has been allocated for an extra 100 British Transport police on the London underground? Will he also confirm, as he has done previously, that there are now more police in Britain than there were even in 1984 during the miners' strike, when the police were supplemented by the Army? Is he aware that there is no such thing as a perfect society in which we can control all those forces that are acting against the interests of the population? If there was a way to combat the suicide bombers and all the rest, my guess is that the answer would have been found in Israel, where they have suffered such problems for many years. The truth is that an answer is not on offer, but it makes an easy shot for the Tories, the Liberals, the media and the BBC, which is riddled with Gilligans.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think that I will pass on the last point. Yes, British Transport police have been allocated on the underground as my hon. Friend described. Yes, there are 11,000 more police, compared with a drop of 1,100 that we inherited in 1997, and they are available to do the job.

Let me make it clear that there are two separate issues here. One is the resources allocated to security and intelligence and to protecting us from attack in the first place. I do not think that anyone can dispute that we have done the job there, and I welcome what the shadow Home Secretary said about MI5, which is doing a first-rate job, as is the counter-terrorism branch. The separate issue is how we deal with an incident when it occurs, and I just say to everybody that this is not new. There are Members on both sides of the House who remember the 30 years before the Good Friday agreement, when incidents took place. There have been civil incidents such as the terrible tragedy in 1989 at the Hillsborough football ground. I remember attending the hospital where all those who were injured and the 95 who died had been taken. We are familiar with dealing with both civil and military contingencies—we have dealt with them for years. We are stepping up that aspect of resilience, so that we will be even better at it should a tragedy occur, but our primary task is to prevent it from happening in the first place.