“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the incident in Salisbury, and the steps we are taking to investigate what happened and to respond to this reckless and despicable act.
Last week, my right honourable friends the Foreign and Home Secretaries set out the details of events as they unfolded on Sunday
I want to pay tribute to the fortitude and calmness with which people in Salisbury have responded to these events, and to thank all those who have come forward to assist the police with their investigation. This incident has, of course, caused considerable concern across the community. Following the discovery of traces of nerve agent in the Zizzi restaurant and “The Mill” pub, the Chief Medical Officer issued further precautionary advice. But as Public Health England has made clear, the risk to public health is low.
I share the impatience of this House and the country at large to bring those responsible to justice, and to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way. But as a nation that believes in justice and the rule of law, it is essential that we proceed in the right way, led not by speculation but by the evidence. That is why we have given the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly. Hundreds of officers have been working around the clock, together with experts from our Armed Forces, to sift and assess all the available evidence, identify crime scenes and decontamination sites, and follow every possible lead to find those responsible. That investigation continues and we must allow the police to continue with their work.
This morning, I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available. As is normal, the council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation. It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
There are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on
This action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation had forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.
During his recent state of the union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida, while the extrajudicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia was given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006 and, of course, Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvinenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation and the stifling of due process and the rule of law.
Following Mr Litvinenko’s death we expelled Russian diplomats, suspended security co-operation, broke off bilateral plans on visas, froze the assets of the suspects and put them on international extradition lists, and these measures remain in place. Furthermore, our commitment to collective defence and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behaviour. Indeed, our Armed Forces have a leading role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence, with British troops leading a multinational battlegroup in Estonia. We have led the way in securing tough sanctions against the Russian economy; we have at all stages worked closely with our allies and we will continue to do so.
We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures. On Wednesday, we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state. Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.
This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals; it was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk, and we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I join her and, I am sure, the whole House, in paying tribute to the dedication and bravery of our emergency services and Armed Forces who are responding to this incident. Our thoughts remain with Detective-Sergeant Nick Bailey and his family at a stressful and worrying time for them, and we wish him a full recovery. This is a deeply shocking attack which we agree was reckless in its disregard for the lives of UK citizens, as well as a direct attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. We commend members of the public in Salisbury who have assisted the investigation. We have to understand the emotional impact on the residents of Salisbury.
The noble Baroness is right that this investigation must be led by evidence, not by speculation. However, she has now been clear about the facts known so far and the evidence that links this attack to Russia, whether government or rogue. I am grateful for the details of the Government’s follow-up engagement with the Russian embassy in the UK, and I welcome the Minister’s agreement to update Parliament on the Russian ambassador’s response as a matter of urgency after he has responded by tomorrow evening. Can she give the House an assurance that this will be discussed in Cabinet and that the response will be formulated before it is brought to your Lordships’ House? We welcome the assurance that a full range of measures will be brought to your Lordships’ House.
The implications of this attack are international and national but they are also very local. Are the Government confident that members of the public have been given all the information they need to cope with this incident in a timely manner? Have all the relevant authorities responded quickly enough in offering help and advice to people in the area? Following the incident, the Chief Medical Officer told the community in Salisbury that there was a low risk to the public. It was not until a week after the attack, on Sunday
“You do not need to seek advice from a health professional unless you are experiencing symptoms”, but it does not give any information on the symptoms to look out for. Would they be respiratory symptoms or a skin rash? A little more information might be helpful for members of the public who are concerned and do not know whether they have symptoms.
The former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has today said there has been quite a long delay, and his experience led him to state that health chiefs should have set up an emergency health centre and a helpline. The public are entitled to more open, specific information rather than general reassurances. Although the risk remains low, members of the public need to be confident that they have all the information they need and know exactly what they are required to do to be safe. Do the Government have any plans to set up a public helpline as the investigation continues?
The former commander of the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment—the CBRN regiment—which specialised in detecting chemical weapons, has said that it is important to be more open about what the city is facing. Taking a step back and looking further into the future regarding our response to this deeply disturbing attack, he has also raised the point that the CBRN regiment was disbanded in 2011 as part of a cost-cutting defence review. Will the noble Baroness consider whether that decision should be revisited? Can she update the House on what plans the Government have to ensure our Armed Forces are properly resourced and prepared for such attacks?
It is important that the emergency services work together and are fully briefed, trained and equipped. The fire and rescue service is responsible for decontamination. When was the guidance for dealing with CBRN last updated? I could not find anything on the government website since 2012, and issues have changed since then. Can the noble Baroness say whether the funding has kept pace with the threat, and whether it has increased or decreased since 2010? I am happy for her to write to me on those points.
Finally, the sanctions Bill that passed through your Lordships’ House with some amendments is now in the House of Commons, which has the opportunity to support the amendments on the Magnitsky clause. It targets sanctions against individuals who abuse human rights. Will the Government reconsider their opposition to that clause as it may well be appropriate when we are dealing with issues such as these?
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in echoing the views of the Prime Minister about the bravery of the emergency services. Like her, our thoughts are also with Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
Although the emergency services are well rehearsed in dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, that is primarily aimed at dealing with terrorist attacks, such as happened on the Tube. This is a very different sort of case and I wonder whether the Government will now consider giving revised guidance to first responders who might find themselves, out of the blue, dealing with a case like this, which at first sight is not necessarily a terrorist attack. In this case the effect on the first responder has clearly been very significant.
The Prime Minister says that there are hundreds of detectives working on the case. Given that police numbers are at their lowest for 30 years, could the Minister explain where these hundreds of detectives have come from? Are she and the Government satisfied that in drawing hundreds of detectives from elsewhere, they have not left unacceptable gaps in those parts from which they have come? When my noble friend Lord Paddick, commenting on this incident last week, asked the Home Office Minister about police resourcing, he was told that the police had the numbers “and more” to do the job they have to do. This flies in the face of the National Police Chiefs Council statement in December that the Budget settlement,
“does not fully meet the level of investment that we identified as necessary”.
I know there is not long to go, but can the Minister have a word with her friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and suggest that, when he makes his Statement this week, he reassures the House and the country that he is making available the level of resource required for the police numbers to be there to do the job they are absolutely required to do.
The Statement explains the steps that were taken after Mr Litvinenko’s death to prevent repetition of such an event. It is very tempting to say simply that they have not been very effective in this case. What is slightly more worrying, however, is that there have been suggestions from US intelligence sources and elsewhere that the UK Government have not been particularly rigorous in implementing those measures because of the levels of investment by Russians in London and elsewhere. I hope the Leader of the House can reassure me that that is not the case.
The Statement goes on to talk about international collaboration against Russian expansionism and unsatisfactory behaviour of various sorts via NATO. Yet the kind of sanctions that we are talking about here are nothing to do with NATO. We are not talking about putting up tanks against the Russian border; we are talking about targeted sanctions against individuals and companies. The way we co-ordinate that is through the EU. That is what we have been discussing with the recent Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill: how on earth we manage to have proper co-ordination going forward. It is rather typical of the attitude of this Government that they talk about NATO, which is almost entirely irrelevant to this incident, but fail to mention at all the EU, which is absolutely germane if we are to get a co-ordinated European response.
The Government say that we must now stand ready to take more extensive measures. I am sure they will have the support of the whole House if they come forward with credible measures to respond to this outrage and potential future threats. But we will be looking very carefully to ensure that any such measures are properly resourced and carried forward with a degree of energy and commitment that has not always and obviously been the case in the past.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. The noble Baroness, rightly, raised the important issue of public safety. I can reassure her that all those who have been in contact with the patients have been contacted by Public Health England, and questions asked about their health status. The latest information was received only on Saturday, and a website was prepared to give the public access to all the relevant information. An announcement was then made early on Sunday. The CMO was confident that nobody who was in the pub or restaurant has come to any immediate harm, and the advice on Sunday does not indicate a change to the existing advice that the risk of harm to the general public is low. However, following new evidence of traces of the substance at the restaurant and pub, and as part of the continuous risk assessment, it was decided to issue additional, highly precautionary advice to a small number of people whose clothes or possessions may have residual traces of the substance, to eliminate future risk.
I will take back the noble Baroness’s suggestion about a helpline, as I do not have an answer on that. I will also write to her in response to her questions about CBRN, as I do not have that information to hand. On defence, I can certainly say that, through the Modernising Defence Programme, the Ministry of Defence is assessing the threats to UK security and prosperity, including increasing Russian hostility to the West, and ensuring that our Armed Forces have the right capabilities to deter and respond to these threats.
The noble Baroness also asked about Magnitsky. 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. As the Prime Minister herself said in the other place, conversations will continue to see whether there is any further need for legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about front-line responders. I can assure him that the Home Office, working with ether government departments, the devolved Administrations and the emergency services, has co-ordinated the delivery of training to more than 150,000 front-line responders. He also asked about resources. More than 250 counterterrorism police from eight of our 11 counterterror units are now working on this incident. We have the best expertise available in this very difficult situation.
I can also assure the noble Lord that we recognise that some of the factors which make the UK attractive for legitimate business also exposes us to the risk of illicit financial flows. Recognising these risks, we have taken a leading role in the global fight against illicit finance. We have robust legal and regulatory frameworks that enable effective investigation and prosecution of money laundering and the recovery of illicit assets. Indeed, this Government have recovered more criminal assets than ever before: £1.4 billion was taken from offenders between April 2010 and March 2017, with many hundreds of millions more frozen.
As the Health Minister who was responsible in COBRA for the first set of responses to the Litvinenko’s assassination, may I ask the Minister what action the Government have taken to learn lessons from that episode, particularly in terms of informing the public within 24 hours, and then on a daily basis, what elements should be of concern to them and how they might deal with them? Those public reassurances were an integral part of that Government’s response to the attack on Litvinenko.
I can certainly assure the noble Lord that lessons have been learned. As I hope I set out in my response to the noble Baroness, public safety has been our number one priority. Public Health England has done a lot, and continues to do what it can, to ensure the public are kept abreast of issues and, as developments arise, of any further information they need to know.
I strongly welcome this Statement. The Prime Minister has been under considerable criticism in recent days for not coming out much earlier with condemnation and an accusation of where this offence has come from. She is absolutely right to say that it must be fully investigated, and this Statement today makes clear the amount of work that has been done to establish what the origin of this incident probably is.
As we go forward in what is now a very dangerous situation, depending on what the response from Russia may be, I hope this whole House will speak with one voice. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, how disappointed I was that he appeared to turn this into an attack on government expenditure policy when there are far bigger issues at stake. I hope very much that we will now stand together in facing this serious threat and the consequences that may flow from it.
I thank my noble friend for his comments. This is of course an extremely serious situation. As the Prime Minister made clear, and as I did in repeating her Statement, we will return to the House as soon as further conversations have been had to make sure that the House is fully updated on these extremely important matters. We need to come together and make sure that we take action to defend this country and keep our citizens safe.
My Lords, I welcome the Prime Minister’s Statement and the strong language that she has used in deploring what has taken place. I know she must be basing that on intelligence and information she has received in the last days, which point towards it being “highly likely”—a high standard of proof—that Russia was responsible for these poisonings. We know that, even if this was not the work of Russian agents, there is evidence that Russia frequently outsources some of this kind of activity. Having watched closely the developments around Litvinenko, my concern is that we did not learn the lessons then and put in place a Magnitsky law. I want to challenge the idea that the pieces of law that we have managed to put together from different legislation that has gone through this House in recent years fills all the gaps; it is my suggestion that it does not. We had to fight very hard—
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness but is she aware that this is the time for Back-Bench questions, not for statements or discussion?
I just wanted to put it to the House and the Minister that the Magnitsky law has not been fulfilled. For example, opposition is still being made to the Bill on visas that I put before the House just before Christmas. We are not seeing visas being refused to government officials travelling here from Russia. We know who many of them are—they own properties in Belgravia and apartments all over London—but we are not refusing them visas. The likelihood is that Putin would take really seriously our measures to prevent them coming here and taking part in activities here with impunity.
As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we have a range of powers. For instance, we have a power to exclude from the UK non-EEA individuals whose presence is not conducive to the public good; EEA nationals may be excluded on the grounds of public policy or public security; and a person may be excluded for a range of reasons, including national security, criminality, involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity, corruption and unacceptable behaviour. As the Prime Minister made clear in response to questions in the other place, we will continue to keep these matters in mind and, if we feel further action needs to be taken, we will consider doing so.
My Lords, may we have an assurance from the Minister that economic or financial considerations will not stand in the way of a proper response to these outrageous events?
My Lords, I commend the Statement by the Prime Minister as strong, clear and measured, but the story that it tells is a chilling one: it is highly likely that a fellow permanent member of the United Nations has used a military-grade nerve agent in an English country town. As a former ambassador to NATO and national security adviser, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will allow me to take polite exception to his comment that this is not a matter for NATO. When the Prime Minister states that, if the Russians cannot produce an explanation this would amount to unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK, I ask the Minister whether she agrees that there is a strong case for consulting our NATO allies on what is a very grave national security threat.
I assure the noble Lord that we will be raising this matter with our allies in a number of forums, including the UN. There can be no return to business as usual with Russia, and this incident proves that our actions over the last decade have been justified. We have taken the lead against Russia’s foreign aggression and abuse of the international rules-based system.
My Lords, I welcome the thoroughness with which the Government have reacted to this terrible incident and the fact that they have not jumped to conclusions prematurely or made statements on the basis of inadequate evidence. Now that the facts are becoming clearer, the robustness of the Prime Minister’s response is wholly adequate to the situation. Looking ahead, however, in the light of what has been said about this being an attack on the United Kingdom, as it certainly is, it will be very important to ensure that we have sufficient allied support—support from our European allies and from the US. It is going to be a great test of the Government’s diplomacy to ensure that we present a united front to Russia at this critical time.
I thank my noble friend, and I entirely agree. Indeed, the action that we have taken on sanctions, for instance, has presented a clear united western position to Russia. We will be discussing this with our allies and working out what action needs to be taken, both in the UK and internationally.
My Lords, when I did a review two years ago into London’s preparedness for a major terrorist incident, I was informed that the number of emergency service staff, particularly in the ambulance service, trained and equipped to deal with CBRN incidents had reduced substantially in recent years, partly because of a change in the assessment of the intelligence of the risk of such an attack but also because of new ways of dealing with such incidents. Are the Government satisfied with the number of staff who are equipped with the appropriate suits to deal with such incidents in the event of something occurring in future?
Once again, I pay tribute to all those involved. We believe that there are resources. Obviously, we have pulled in experts from all different areas and different parts of the emergency services, and we feel that we are managing to respond to this adequately. However, we will also always be mindful and learn lessons from this going forward.
My Lords, what risk assessments have been carried out on Russian nationals living in the UK who may be a target for the Putin regime? What steps have the police and security services taken to minimise the risk to them and, more importantly, the risk to UK citizens and members of the emergency services who might come into contact with them?
My Lords, in the case of Litvinenko a public inquiry was set up nine years after the event, when the trail had gone very cold. Will Her Majesty’s Government arrange for a public inquiry to be ordered immediately, as there is every prospect that it can cast a flood of light on this matter?
As the Statement made clear, we have asked the Russian ambassador to respond within 24 hours to the questions that we have put to him, and I do not think it is right for me to prejudge any of the responses. I have made clear that we will be returning to the House once those conversations have been had and a decision is made as to how to proceed on the basis of the information received.
My Lords, I read recently that the Russians complained that they had not been shown the evidence in relation to Litvinenko’s case. I hope it is possible to show them evidence this time that should convince them of the rightness of our conclusion, although that is of course subject to other aspects that I am not aware of. But I think we ought to do our best to convince them, if they are open to being convinced, that this is true.
As the Statement set out, we have spoken to the Russian ambassador and set out, on the basis of the evidence that we have, what we believe the two possible explanations are for what happened in Salisbury, and we are waiting to hear their response.
My Lords, what Mr Putin will fear more than anything else is transparency and exposure of the excesses of his regime. What are we doing to promote alternative media sources being transmitted into Russia? They transmit Russia Today to us. What do we do in reciprocation? Are we pressing them to accept any of our media?
I do not have figures to hand but, as I said, all those who were in contact with the patients have been contacted by Public Health England and questions asked about their health status. Public Health England does not expect any further patients to present as a result of the event but, if anyone who was in the area is concerned or feels unwell, they should dial 111 or 999, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition wished the police officer involved a full recovery. I know from experience, as do hundreds of farmers, that any exposure to organo-phosphates is permanent and irreversible. Will the Minister ensure that anyone exposed is looked at for psychoneurological and autonomic nervous system problems, because that seems to be where it strikes most?
I thank the noble Baroness for her comments, and I am sure that our fantastic health services are doing all they can to support those who have been in contact with this agent. Once again, we wish Detective Sergeant Bailey all the best for a speedy recovery.
My Lords, will the Minister say just a word more about the Chemical Weapons Convention? Is it a fact that the possession of this substance by the Russian state would be a breach of its obligations under that convention? Presumably, if the answer to that is yes, its use would be an even greater breach. Could she say something about that and whether the Government are considering making a case before the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?
We believe that this most certainly does go against the spirit of that treaty. We will be discussing that but, as I said, we have spoken to the Russian ambassador, we have set out our two explanations for this incident and I do not want to prejudge what may follow. We should wait, and decisions can be made on the basis of that response.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, suggested that the Americans may think that our response to these things is not sufficiently robust because we do not want to discourage investment into this country. Perhaps my noble friend the Leader of the House can confirm that, by introducing unexplained wealth orders and agreeing to set up a register identifying the beneficial owners of property, we are in fact ahead of the game and leading the world in trying to stamp out this sort of behaviour.
My Lords, I would not like us to leave the subject without mentioning the more particular situation. I happen to have spent several hours in Salisbury this weekend, and the calm—perhaps slightly depressed, but nevertheless calm—-and normal way in which individuals and businesses carried out their work in Salisbury despite the dramatic news on the media was incredible. You would not really have known that there was anything worse than the bad weather to keep people away from the centre of the city. Does that not underline the need to ensure that any further statements about the possible danger to individuals who were in the city are handled with great care and are given in due time, not adding to the anxieties of the population?
I entirely agree with the noble Lord and echo his tribute to the people of Salisbury. We are all thinking of them; they are at the forefront of our minds, as is their safety.
My Lords, for some years at the turn of the century I was rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya. May I say that what has happened here is all too characteristic of the ruthless techniques of the Russian authorities? Does the noble Baroness agree that it has become very clear that one of their methods of control is to create fear and anxiety? In that context, is there not a very strong case for re-examining other happenings of the same kind in this country in recent years?
The noble Lord will know that of course the Government and the police are aware of other allegations, but I am afraid I cannot be drawn into them. The police obviously have operational independence to investigate criminal activity, and we do not direct police investigations. It is up to the police to decide whether to investigate, but I think that all of us believe that at the moment the focus should be on the events in Salisbury and making sure that we get to the bottom of that. We want to make sure that we deal with those who have carried out this appalling crime and that they are held to account.
My Lords, in associating myself particularly with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, can I ask the noble Baroness to agree that robust language from the Prime Minister has not always been followed by robust action, and that it is better to have calibrated and effective action which genuinely deters President Putin than to seek tomorrow’s headlines?
I certainly agree with that. I would say that we have responded robustly and proportionately to Russian provocations over the last decade, from the murdering of Mr Litvinenko to pursuing illegal wars in Ukraine and Syria and constant aggression on the internet. At every stage, we have taken the appropriate actions and encouraged international partners to do the same.
My Lords, I welcome the Prime Minister’s distinction of the need for evidence over speculation. Is it recognised that a response from the Russian state might be enhanced if there was a working relationship between our agencies and the FSB, which is currently held hostage? Is it not the essence of diplomacy, which safeguards the interests of the state and its citizenry, to ensure constructive dialogue at all levels? Does the noble Baroness have a view that we need to ramp up on the resilience of the people at large in this country?
As I said in a previous answer, there can be no return to business as usual with Russia, but having said that, we do not want to be in a perpetual state of confrontation. We have sought to engage where possible, but it is for Russia to make the first move and demonstrate that its behaviour will change.
Sitting suspended. Committee to begin again not before 7.34 pm.