Incident in Salisbury - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 8th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 12:30 pm, 8th March 2018

My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the incident in Salisbury that has been unfolding over the last four days. First, I would like to pay testament to the continued professionalism, dedication and courage of the emergency services. They have handled this incident with their customary attentiveness, alacrity and sense of public duty. We rely on their response to keep us safe. In doing so, first responders put themselves in dangerous situations on a day-to-day basis. This incident has underlined that fact, which I will sadly return to later.

I will now update the House as far as is possible based on the current facts of the case. At approximately 4.15 on Sunday afternoon, Wiltshire Police received a call from a member of the public who was concerned for the welfare of two people in a park in Salisbury. Emergency services were called and the two were admitted to the A&E department of Salisbury District Hospital. They were a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s with no visible signs of injury. They are understood to be Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Both remain unconscious and in a critical condition.

I regret to inform the House that a police officer has also fallen seriously ill. The officer was one of the first responders on Sunday, acting selflessly to help others. Officers from Wiltshire Police are providing support to the officer’s family and colleagues.

Our thoughts are with all three victims, their families and friends, at what for them will be an incredibly difficult time.

Wiltshire Police began an investigation on Sunday to determine how the individuals fell ill and whether a crime had been committed. They declared a major incident on Monday. On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Police decided that, given the unusual circumstances, responsibility for the investigation should transfer to the counterterrorism police network. Samples from the victims have been tested by experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, who are world-renowned experts in this field.

As Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley announced yesterday, that forensic analysis has revealed the presence of a nerve agent, and the incident is therefore being treated as attempted murder. I can confirm that it is highly likely that the police officer has been exposed to the same nerve agent.

We remain in the midst of a fast-paced criminal investigation, and I will not comment further on the nature of the nerve agent. We must give the police the space they need to conduct a thorough investigation. All Members will recognise that an investigation such as this will be complex and could take some time.

Public safety continues to be the number one priority for the Government. Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, stated yesterday that, based on the evidence we have, there is a low risk to public health. The UK has a world-leading emergency response. It is regularly tested and exercised to ensure we can deliver an effective response to a wide range of chemical, biological and radiological incidents. The three emergency services are well supplied with state-of-the-art equipment to respond to such threats.

The front-line response is supported by world-class scientific research and advice. This ensures that decision-making on the ground, by all agencies involved, is firmly based on the available evidence. This will also support the decontamination activity needed to return the location to normality. The police are working closely with Public Health England, Defra and Dstl. They have cordoned all known sites in Salisbury that were visited by the two initial victims before they became unwell and are taking the necessary measures to protect public safety.

I want to turn to the speculation, of which there has been much, around who was responsible for this most outrageous crime. The use of a nerve agent on UK soil is a brazen and reckless act. This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way. People are right to want to know who to hold to account but, if we are to be rigorous in this investigation, we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry out their investigation. As the Assistant Commissioner said yesterday, the investigation now involves hundreds of officers following every possible lead to find those responsible. Some of the leads have come from members of the public. I thank the people of Salisbury for their help and for the calm they have shown over the last four days. I encourage anyone who visited Salisbury town centre and surrounding areas on Sunday afternoon, and who has not yet spoken to the police, to get in touch.

We are committed to doing all we can to bring the perpetrators to justice, whoever they are and wherever they may be. The investigation is moving at pace and this Government will act without hesitation as the facts become clearer. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on Tuesday, we will respond in a robust and appropriate manner once we ascertain who was responsible.

I would like to close where I began—by expressing my sincere thanks to the emergency services and hospital staff for their tireless efforts over the last four days. They have acted with utter professionalism to minimise the risk to the wider public and care for victims of this attack, for which I know we are all grateful. Our thoughts will be with the victims in the coming days. Finally, I thank Members for their understanding that there will clearly be limits on what we can say as the investigation continues. As and when information can be made public, it will be. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 12:36 pm, 8th March 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for repeating the Statement given by the Home Secretary in the other place earlier today. I join with the noble Baroness in paying tribute to the continued professionalism, dedication and courage of our emergency services. They handled the incident with their usual dedication and, as she said, with their sense of public duty, putting themselves at risk to protect the public.

The two individuals, who we now believe to be Sergei and Yulia Skripal, are, as have heard, in a critical but stable condition. The police officer who was also taken seriously ill in the line of duty is conscious and talking, and we all know that the staff of the NHS treating the three individuals will do everything possible to help them. We hope they all make a recovery and our thoughts and prayers are with all their families and friends at this terrible time.

The investigation is, as we have heard, under the control of the Metropolitan Police counterterrorism policing network. The safety of the public must be the number one priority for the Government. We fully support them, the police and the other agencies in what they are doing to keep us all safe. This crime is an outrageous act committed on British soil and we all condemn it. I entirely accept that we must always avoid unhelpful speculation, and that a thorough investigation is the only way to get to the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice. If the Minister could comment on and confirm the determination of the Government to do just that, we on this side of the House will fully support them in that aim.

I again express my thanks to all the dedicated professionals in the police and other emergency services, and the staff in the hospital taking care of the three victims. Time and time again, our emergency service workers go beyond the call of duty to help others and this is another example of the great debt we owe them. I am sure the Minister will keep the House further informed, if she can, in this fast-moving investigation.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and pay tribute to the emergency services, an issue I shall want to return to shortly. We are also concerned for the police officer and the other victims, their families and friends.

I appreciate that the investigation is ongoing but can the Minister confirm that one of the victims was a Russian citizen who was a British spy or double agent, and that President Putin has in effect made death threats against such individuals? The Government should be telling Parliament as much as they can about such incidents, not as little as they can get away with while hiding behind the fact that there is an ongoing investigation.

The Statement talks about well-rehearsed CBRN procedures, but these are deployed when it is a known CBRN threat. What reassurance can the Minister give that such procedures will be reviewed so that first responders are not put in danger, as the police officer who first attended this incident has clearly been put in danger? The Statement talks about protecting British citizens, but what risk assessments are carried out on Russian citizens living in the UK, particularly those who may have risked their lives to assist the UK in the past?

We on these Benches have repeatedly expressed concern about reductions in Border Force, with reliance placed on electronic gates and remote ports and small airfields not having sufficient protection—a situation that is likely to be made worse if we continue to Brexit.

I understand that hostile foreign powers might produce very convincing fraudulent documents to get their assassins into the UK, but can the Minister speculate how on earth a highly toxic nerve agent was smuggled into the country, assuming it was not stolen from a government facility in this country. Is the Minister satisfied that Border Force is properly funded and that our borders are secure?

I pay tribute to the emergency services but I also pay tribute to the security and intelligence services. In the interactions that I have had with those services, I am confident that we have among the best security and intelligence services in the world. Clearly, however, in an arms race with hostile foreign powers, we need to ensure that those services are properly funded.

I pay particular tribute to the police service—as in this case, they are often the first to arrive at the scene of incidents, never knowing what dangers they face. I wish the officer in this case a speedy recovery. The Government have continued to say that we need fewer police officers because crime is falling, but this incident is just one example of the police being the service of last resort. They have to deal with people in distress and, as we saw last week, respond to people trapped in the appalling weather—nothing to do with crime. These brave police officers never know the sorts of dangers that they are facing and can end up, as this officer has, seriously ill in hospital. Sometimes they give up their lives in order to protect us, as Keith Palmer did nearly a year ago in this place. Yet the Government appear in the eyes of operational police officers to be treating the police service with contempt—freezing their salaries, cutting their pensions and reducing police budgets in real terms. Will the Minister tell the House when the Government are going to reverse their anti-police agenda?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

First, I echo the words of the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Paddick, in praising our emergency services in the highest possible terms for what they risked to help these two individuals, which of course led to one of the policemen being taken ill. He is still in hospital. It brings into play the question of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about the danger to our emergency services and whether all risk assessments are done to mitigate such injury to the police.

Certainly I can say that in the CBRN area these procedures are constantly reviewed and people are trained to the highest possible level—but in an emergency like this we can all appreciate that sometimes people’s lives will be at risk. People are put in danger, and that is why we have the highest regard for the police. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about police budgets. The police told us last year the number of additional police officers needed to do their job. We feel that in the budget they can attain this year they will have those police numbers—and more—to do the job that they do. That does not detract from the fact that the injury to this police officer, and indeed the death of PC Palmer some months, ago bring into sharp focus the dangers that police put themselves into.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked me to reiterate the Government’s determination to bring the perpetrators to justice. I said that in my Answer to the Question earlier and I repeat it now: we are absolutely determined to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked whether I could confirm that one of the individuals was a Russian spy. I am not in a position to comment further on the victims, other than in the Statement where I confirmed their names.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also asked about borders, how the substance came into the country and how sure we are of effective border control. I am not prepared to comment on an ongoing operation; I know that the House got slightly exasperated with me earlier, but I cannot. We adopt a rigorous approach to border security, and agencies work together at the border to manage a range of threats, including those posed by terrorism and serious and organised crime. This includes carrying out 100% immigration and security checks at the primary control point, advanced checks where available and intelligence-led targeting at ports. Border Force has at its disposal a range of capability to detect, target and identify substances and materials that could cause harm.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 12:46 pm, 8th March 2018

My Lords, Porton is a very famous laboratory and works very closely with the US and other countries. Could the Minister assure us that there are already comparisons and supportive investigations of that sort?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I apologise; did the noble Lord say “Porton”, as in Porton Down?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

Obviously Porton Down is very close to where the incident took place. We co-operate in various areas but I do not know whether we are co-operating with the US on this particular issue. I can find out for the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Conservative

My Lords, I think the House will understand why the Minister has to be very circumspect when answering questions about the ongoing investigation, and will appreciate that she has told the House that it is a matter of the utmost priority that the perpetrators will be sought out and justice will be served. However, the incident involving the death of Litvinenko does not provide a happy precedent in terms of the time that elapsed between his poisoning and a High Court judge finally concluding that it was the result of deliberate Russian activity. Could the Minister reassure us that, quite apart from the criminal investigation, the Home Office will take responsibility to ensure that all matters surrounding the very serious injuries—we hope that they are just injuries—to these two will be investigated, and that all the lessons from Litvinenko and other questionable incidents will be learned so as to reduce the possibility of recurrence?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I can confirm to my noble friend that all matters surrounding this will be investigated thoroughly. I cannot stress that enough, actually. On the question of Litvinenko and lessons learned, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and civilised behaviour. At the time, the Government responded robustly and, following the publication of the report, we made representations in the strongest possible terms to the Russian Government and put in place asset freezes against the main suspects. For my noble friend’s information, we have demanded and continue to demand that the Russian Government account for the role of the FSB in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, while appreciating that the circumstances are very similar to—indeed, a carbon copy of—what occurred in the case of Litvinenko, does the Minister agree that, if that be the case, it is not just an attack on a person, but an attack on the sovereignty of this land?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

As I have said on quite a few occasions this morning, that is jumping the gun as to the conclusion of the police, and I will not do that, as this is an ongoing investigation. I hope the noble Lord will understand that I cannot answer his question fully.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative

Will my noble friend, in due course, when more information is available to her, consider the risk of such substances, not so much coming in with a spy through a small port or airport, but coming in on a wide-bodied jet into a major UK airport under diplomatic immunity? If that proves to be a possible route, will she take a very firm look, however inconvenient it might be in terms of reciprocity with other countries, at what might come in through our major airports in that way?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I understand my noble friend’s question and completely appreciate what such an event might lead to, should toxic or noxious substances come in through our major airports. The security and detection arrangements at our airports are stronger than ever before, so I hope she is comforted by that. We assess risk at the border all the time. In fact, my noble friend points to the changing risks at the border—risks that perhaps were not there years ago now are, in terms of the various ways in which people can bring things into this country.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

My Lords, returning to the Litvinenko case, many Members of your Lordships’ House, including me, were involved in the updating of the public health laws that we had in this country, some of which dated back to the previous century. Will the Minister, along with her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care, report to the House in due course whether those legislative changes were sufficient to deal with what seems at this stage to be a somewhat similar incident?

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

Certainly, Public Health England worked in conjunction with the police in the immediate aftermath of this event. It is clearly involved in the ongoing recovery of the individuals concerned. I will take that point back and provide an answer for the noble Baroness if I can.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative

My Lords, there appears to be a difference between the Litvinenko case and this case in that, in the former case, a substance was used that left a very clear track and it was very easy to follow through on it. In the current case, however, it appears from what has been said that the nerve agent that was used does not appear to have left a trail, or if it has done, there has been no comment about it so far. It might be that lessons were learned by the perpetrator in the current case from the Litvinenko case. I hope that we will also learn—or have learned—the lessons from our handling of the Litvinenko case, where the initial response, lasting for quite some time, was quite inadequate. Commentators have said that it very clearly left the perpetrators with the feeling that we were a soft touch. Therefore, we will have to be even more robust in our response this time than might have been the case if we had not had that not-so-good example before us.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I know that I am going to disappoint my noble friend when I say that the cause of the two individuals’ illness is currently subject to investigation. It is not appropriate at this time to comment or to link it to other cases, but what I can say to my noble friend, in concurring with him, is that there are always lessons to be learned on how we respond to emergency situations and situations of this nature.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Conservative

My Lords, when it comes to state-sponsored murder, Russia certainly has form. It was not that long ago that Bill Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was killed mysteriously in jail because he had been defending Browder against the Russian Government. As a result of that, Browder had Magnitsky’s law brought on to the American statute book, stopping known enemies bringing their money and themselves into that country. Other countries have followed. This country has not implemented Magnitsky’s law in full. I wonder whether at this stage, given the impunity with which the Russians seem to treat us—not just our referendum but those living here—my noble friend might be inclined to revisit that today.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, we are absolutely committed to promoting and strengthening universal human rights. We talked about this case at length during the passage of the Criminal Finances Act and in debates on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. We want to hold to account states that are responsible for the worst violations. We already have a range of powers similar to those in the US Magnitsky Act which we regularly deploy to protect national security and our financial system.