Salisbury Incident

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 4:44 pm, 12th September 2018

My hon. Friend may not have been present at the beginning of the debate. In my opening speech, I paid considerable tribute—as did the hon. Member for Torfaen—to the staff and clinicians, and to the paramedics who initially went to the victims’ aid. We were incredibly lucky, not only with the professionalism that we encountered in Salisbury, but because of Salisbury’s proximity to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the knowledge that it could provide. Some of the clinicians had, in the past, had expertise in or knowledge of matters of this kind. That was a significant piece of luck. We could have been looking at a worse situation had this happened a long way away from where it did.

Let me return to our support for the council and the people of Salisbury. The Government have committed a £10 million package to support local businesses, to boost tourism, and to meet some of the policing pressures. In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to work alongside the council and businesses to identify further or exceptional cases arising from the incident, to ensure that Salisbury, Amesbury and, indeed, Wiltshire are not adversely affected by events that were completely out of their control.

I also note Members’ concern about the pressure that was placed on Wiltshire’s vital public services, including the local police and NHS. I am happy to commit myself to ensuring that neither will be left financially worse off as a result of the events of March and June. So far we have provided £6.6 million in special grant funding for Wiltshire constabulary, and we will continue to work closely with the local police forces and health services to identify rapidly when and where further funding is needed.

As I have said, painstaking and methodical police investigation has identified sufficient evidence to allow the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges against two Russian nationals for the attack. These same two Russian nationals are also the prime suspects in the investigation into the poisoning of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, and both incidents now form a single investigation.

The two suspects were from Russian military intelligence. It was not a rogue operation, and the attack was almost certainly approved at the senior levels of the Russian state. Ultimately, though, how and why this decision was taken are questions that the Russian state can answer. The action we have taken against Russia since April constitutes some of the toughest packages of measures we have ever taken. Many Members contributed today with regard to the next steps and I want to respond to a number of them.

Stephen Kinnock talked about sanctions. I am as keen as he is to use the sanctions mechanism to tackle and push back against Russian activity, including illicit finance. The sanctions he highlighted in respect of Estonia and the other Baltic states relate to travel bans. We have that power already and use it on a case-by-case basis to deter people, stop or exclude people from coming to this country; we have used it and we will continue to use it, not just around this particular issue but around many other issues. Also, there is already in place an EU-wide sanction list covering 150 individuals, including the chief of the general staff and prominent people in the GRU; it is like a “Who’s Who” of the Russian state, linked to both Crimea and the leadership of Russia and its security. It makes for interesting reading: the European Council journal document is comprehensive, with the siloviki—the internal security state of Russia—named in considerable numbers. I do not think that the list would be very different if it were compiled purely on the Salisbury incident; it is a fairly comprehensive list, and so long as we remain in the EU we will press to keep it up to date and in place, not only with regard to Salisbury but in recognition of the fact that Crimea was invaded by another sovereign state.

My hon. Friend Trudy Harrison will know only too well that Russian state activity extends a lot further than just the south-east. Barrow-in-Furness, the home of our submarine manufacturing, is not far from her constituency, and for many years what goes on up there has been of interest to a number of states. We must remember that hostile states are not only concerned about London and the centre; we saw action in a cathedral city in England and we see activity up and down our country. That is true of Scotland as well, and I welcome the strong support of the SNP Front-Bench Member, Stephen Gethins. He made some clear points about the good influence of Russia in Scotland and vice versa, but about the negative influence Russia could have on the people of Scotland, too. We should note that the SNP support has been extremely strong, and I welcome that.

I heard the discussion between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr about Russia Today. My instinct is that we are better than Russia. I think RT is like a comic channel—I do not find it sensible at all—but we do not go around banning media outlets. That is the job of totalitarian and other such states. We ask media outlets to comply with the regulation of Ofcom, the regulator, and if Ofcom makes a recommendation, it makes a recommendation; it will not be interfered with by Ministers, and it will not be up to me to tell it to go and pick on people. We believe in that type of operational independence and we should not forget that it is what makes us better than them.

That also goes to the point made by my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien about soft power: the power of these hostile states to use our open media sometimes to manipulate us and our political systems and spread seeds of doubt.

I am now going to say something rather controversial from the Conservative Benches. I am an incredible fan of the BBC, and one of the things that gives me hope that the United Kingdom is not as vulnerable as some other countries to that type of malign behaviour is that our mainstream media—ITV, Sky, BBC News—usually all start from the point of view of accepting the same facts. They might interpret them differently, but they are a vital reference point in what is in this century a hectic, crowded and shouty social media space. To me, the soft power of the BBC World Service and the BBC’s reputation, as well as of ITV’s main news, is really important, and I hope that it will help to protect us from some of that malign disinformation. If that means that I have to swallow some of the things that the BBC says about me and my Government, I shall just live with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough also asked what more we could do about internationalising the response and keeping it going, and about reaffirming our commitment to the international rules-based system. I was at the G7 in Toronto discussing these matters. We should not underestimate how supportive the international community is, not only of our response but of our view of the Russian state and where it has got to today. Other countries may express themselves differently, and they may do things in the covert space rather than in the overt space, but there is a genuine recognition not just by the Five Eyes, the NATO members and the European states but by middle eastern and Asian states that this is unacceptable and a dangerous direction for Russia to be taking. Those nations know that if Russia can use a nerve agent here, it could do it anywhere. We have felt no weakening of that resolve, and we will continue to invest in it to ensure that the international response is the way to proceed.

As ever, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk made a brilliant speech. Not only was it proportionate and necessary, but he made the point that we have to respond in a proportionate and necessary way. This is another thing that makes us different from those kinds of regimes. Yes, we could indulge ourselves by going beyond what is proportionate and necessary, and we could appeal to the populist agenda on certain occasions, but what keeps the international community and our free media with us is the fact that our responses are proportionate and necessary. Throughout this debate, we have talked about suspects and people that we wish to put on trial. We have not convicted them. I hope that justice will catch up with them and that they will face trial one day.

My hon. Friend Leo Docherty talked about the predominantly military activity that we are seeing at the moment, with Russia entering our airspace, the major exercises taking place on some of our allies’ borders and the stepping up of the military rhetoric. That is a matter of serious concern to our allies, because some of the Baltic states are not far away from those large exercises. We question whether their purpose is purely to exercise soldiers rather than making a menacing statement to people Russia disagrees with.

Coming back to a point made by Richard Benyon, who is no longer in his place, I understand the impatience felt by many Members about illicit finance and about locking up or dealing with people they view as oligarchs funded with illicit money or criminals. Carrying out investigations into those types of people is a difficult, resource-intensive and complex thing. In the case of a number of those people, we will get there from around the world, not from one particular country, based on who presents the most threat, who could do the most harm, who has stolen the most money or who is corrupting us here. Those will be the guiding principles, but the biggest guiding principle will be the operational independence of our law enforcement agencies.

Again, what makes us different is that I do not sit in my ministerial office picking up the phone and telling our police to pick on whoever I choose. Of course, Ministers can push, test and question how much resource the police are putting in and how much resolve they are committing. We can ask whether they are picking up on public opinion or on the desire to do something. We can help them with priorities when it comes to the reputation of the United Kingdom. Ultimately, however, it is about the decisions of professionals, coupled with advice from the CPS and others, about how and when we take action against individuals.

This Government could not be clearer. We want action on illicit finance. We passed the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The Labour party passed the Bribery Act 2010 and we implemented it. We have produced a suite of legislation that allows us to take the matter on and to build Britain’s reputation as a better, more transparent place in which to do business. That is why I was pleased that we moved from 10th to eighth in Transparency International’s rankings. We are moving up, not down. I feel the impatience of others, but things are not easy when we are dealing with people with layers of facilitators and so on.

Many right hon. and hon Members made the point that the Russian people are our friends. We all have the highest regard for Russian culture and the Russian contribution to our history. This is not Russophobia or an attempt at regime change; this is about dealing with unacceptable, reckless, dangerous, aggressive behaviour by the agencies of Russian state—the GRU in this case—and a direct challenge to our values, not only in the west but around the world, and to the international rule of law. Thanks to our values and perhaps our size, this country has decided that we are going to take a stand. Perhaps that is why they choose to attack us here in our country; we represent the very things they hate.

When I say that we are better than them, that sometimes costs us something. It means that we have a freer media and open travel, which gets abused by people coming to carry out the attack in Salisbury, for example. However, that is the cost of being better. The strongest message that we can send to Mr Putin in response to the Salisbury incident is that we are better than them. We have identified the people whom we suspect carried out this attack. We seek justice, but not summary justice, and we will continue to pursue them. We are not just going to sit back and say, “That’s enough.” We are going to press and push back the malign activity of the Russian state if we see it in our media, the military space, the espionage space or cyber-space, and we will do that using the resources that we have invested in over decades.

I am grateful that the whole House has been united on this issue, on the response and on pushing back against Russia, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was right about our actions being proportionate and necessary because we also have to resolve the situation. There have been lots of outrageous events, but our aim is to have good relations with the Russians one day. It is worth their while reversing some of their actions and their views. We want to get them back into the international order of things. We cannot demonise or act recklessly; our actions must be proportionate and necessary. We will defend our values. We will pursue the individuals involved for justice. I am proud of the work of the people of Salisbury, the NHS, the blue-light services and the intelligence services in dealing with the horrendous incidents in March and June, and we will not let up the pressure.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Salisbury incident.