Intelligence and Security Committee Annual Report 2003–04

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:29 pm on 8th July 2004.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs 4:29 pm, 8th July 2004

I apologise to the House in advance for perhaps having to leave a little early.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis, many of whose points I will endeavour to discuss, although I do not expect to do so as lucidly as he did.

About six weeks ago, 1,500 lb of fertiliser was found in west London. I gather from open sources that it would have been most likely to be turned into home-made explosive and used in a number of car bombs, probably around west London, or possibly in north London. The discovery of that potential explosive represents a very considerable success for the security agencies that picked up those of our enemies who were involved. On the back of the discovery there came a series of arrests, mainly of Pakistanis, some domiciled in this country and others from abroad.

About two weeks ago, I had the enormous privilege of being briefed by the high commissioner and his staff in Islamabad. They hinted that the operation was much more complex than anything that the open sources in this country had been able to tell us. They told me, or rather hinted, that there had been a very successful operation by British agencies in combination with local agencies in Pakistan. They also said that a much worse event, the details of which I was not told, had been planned, which, if it had gone ahead, would have devastated large parts of this country. I can only pay tribute to the agencies that are prepared to carry out such operations with such courage. The high commissioner told me, "If you are talking about prevention versus cure, homeland security starts here in Islamabad, in Kabul or wherever—that is where the real operations are carried out."

I want to try to tease out one or two points about the balance between prevention and cure. If an operation can be prevented, so much the better, but the fact remains that the head of the Security Service and the commissioner of the Metropolitan police tell us that an attack on this country is all but inevitable. To use a wartime phrase, the bomber will always get through. Then, it referred to the Luftwaffe, but the analogy is not lost today. I will not use the old saw about always being lucky, but there is no doubt that we have been extraordinarily lucky so far. It needs only one terrorist to get through for the whole complexion of our security structure to be changed.

The Committee's report says that the Security Service's website includes information about

"the threat from terrorism and details of protective security measures available".

Like my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East, I wonder why the details on that website are not made far more widely available to the public. Why are we not told as much as we possibly can be told? Why are we not told, for instance, what is the national state of alert?

The counter-argument, of course, is that to do so would scare the pants off people. However, it has been done in the past. MI5 and the Metropolitan police carried out a very successful public information campaign against the Irish Republican Army in the 1990s. That gave the public detailed indications of what they were to look for and how they could help the security agencies and services to thwart terrorism. Why are the offices of the national security advice centre not more accessible to the public? Why do not the Government choose to follow the example that is being set by the Metropolitan police and British Transport police in relation to the current poster campaign? Why do not the Government choose to enrol every responsible member of the public as another pair of eyes and ears for the wider police family?

The report states:

"We recommend that the threat to the United Kingdom's critical national infrastructure and vulnerability to electronic and other attacks should be examined by the JIC and considered by Ministers."

If we continue to be vulnerable in that way, should we not consider streamlining the intelligence that we have to handle? Doubtless, the Butler report will make many good points about that.

How much time do our security agencies spend dealing with people who should not be here? Should we have a proper immigration policy, which would save so much of the time of those important men and women? The United States deals with that through a Department of Homeland Security. It has pulled together its Government agencies. In this country, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport, the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Defence and a host of others might deal with the sort of problem that I have outlined. They would have to refer to the head of the Security Service, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, the head of GCHQ, the head of Defence Intelligence Staff and the head of assessment staff. We are told that a security and intelligence co-ordinator is now pulling all that together, backed up by only a small civil contingency secretariat to deal with curing part of the problem.

Where does the responsibility of one agency start and another one stop? Where does one Department's responsibilities begin and another's end? Is it any wonder that intelligence has been, to put it charitably, over-analysed, and that the wrong conclusions have been drawn? We need one central figure and one central Ministry to deal with the matter. The problem will not get easier and the money that we need to spend on it will increase every year.

Let me make some small, sub-tactical points. It is interesting that an officer who is posted from one part of the intelligence community to deal with Islamic fundamentalism receives no training in the nuances of the Muslim faith and creed, the problems that surround Islamic fundamentalism, the history behind it and the outlook. He or she is expected to pick up the whole discipline on the job. That is most odd when the humblest private soldier receives extensive training in dealing with the problems that he faces before deploying to, for example, Northern Ireland, Iraq or Bosnia.

The report provides some detail about the intelligence cycle, which is interesting and reminds me of parts of my basic training years ago. We are told that the collection plan is set centrally for the agencies, but the report does not make clear where the audit trail for the collection plan lies. Each agency is responsible for auditing its success. That cannot be objective; it must be subjective. Surely there is a better system for assessing success v. failure.

In the report, C mentions collection gaps. He says that the SIS is now "behind the curve". We have heard today that funding for MI5 will be increased considerably. What about the other agencies? The Chancellor said yesterday that it was the Government's "first duty" to defend the people of Britain. He continued:

"I will make available the resources needed to strengthen security at home and take action to counter the terrorist threat at home and abroad . . . Those who wish to cut in real terms the budget even for security will need to answer the British people . . . We will spend what it takes on security to safeguard the British people."

Those are fine words, but what about the civil defence grant to our local authorities? What about the anomalies in the equipment that fire, police and ambulance services hold? What about the fact that our firemen who back up the immediate response units have received no training in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks? What about the fact that the civil contingencies reaction force—the only addition to manpower to deal with the curing rather than the prevention part of the problem—have been seen manifestly to fail in the face of the overstretch of the regular forces? And what about the fact that our armed forces are to be cut yet again? Fine words indeed.

I shall end by quoting from paragraph 8 of the report, which states:

"Terrorism is currently the biggest threat to the national security of the UK and its interests and the Agencies are operating in an extremely difficult and hostile environment. The Prime Minister stated in a speech on 5 March 2004:

'the [security] threat we face is not conventional. It is a challenge of a different nature from anything the world has faced before.'"

We are blessed with outstanding intelligence agencies, and this report has been enormously helpful, but I do not see a Government who are ready to rise to this challenge, or who are willing to face

"a challenge of a different nature from anything the world has faced before."

I see a Government who are mired in complacency.