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2.10 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I welcome the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to his new responsibilities, and, indeed, congratulate his predecessor on his election.

Let me begin by adding my personal expression of condolence with and profound sympathy for the American people—the families, friends and colleagues of those who have been killed or injured. Although these appalling attacks took place thousands of miles away from here, they are very close to the people of this country, because we, as individuals, are bound to the United States by ties of family, of friendship and of work.

One symbol of the strength of the relationship between our two countries is the number of British citizens who live and work in the United States, or who visit its cities—such as New York—every day. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) gave one very moving example. The number of our citizens confirmed dead or missing is already into the hundreds. I know that I speak for the whole House in expressing our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of those who we know have died, and our thoughts are with those who still wait to hear news of their loved ones.

For those in the defence community, the tragedy is also close to home. The attacks focused on civilians in New York and Pennsylvania; they also focused on our colleagues in the United States armed forces, and the civilians who work with them. Many members of our two armed forces have trained together, deployed together and, in many cases, fought together. Officials in the Ministry of Defence work closely with their colleagues in the Department of Defence. The lives lost and the injuries caused by the attack on the Pentagon have had a particularly profound impact on everyone in the United Kingdom's defence community. I know that I speak for them all in expressing our sympathy and our support.

I have spoken to the United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to express my solidarity and support to him and to the United States Department of Defence. We are united in our determination to bring those responsible to justice. The Chief of the Defence Staff and other senior military personnel have spoken to their counterparts to express their shock and their sympathy.

Our strong relationship with the United States, and with its armed forces, is a practical expression of our close personal and national ties. The Government are identifying help and expertise that we can provide in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy. We have already offered a wide-ranging package of assistance, including specialist search personnel and equipment and forensic experts. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and, indeed, the hon. Member for North

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Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) eloquently pointed out, because we have faced terrorism ourselves, we have developed some of the world's best counter-terrorist expertise and capabilities.

Our own preparations have also included a raft of robust contingency plans, in the interests of national security and the protection of the public. The plans are well prepared, regularly exercised, tested, reviewed, and refined in the light of changing domestic and international circumstances. By their very nature, they cannot be made public; to do so would allow potential aggressors to undermine them. But should the United Kingdom be threatened in any way, we will not hesitate to defend ourselves.

Many parts of Government are devoted to monitoring and responding to the terrorist threat. Obviously, they include military experts. They also include the security and intelligence agencies, the police, scientists, and other specialists. I assure the shadow Defence Secretary that resources will not be an issue in that respect. We continue to learn from our own experience, and from the experience of our friends and allies.

It follows, therefore, that the events in the United States triggered an immediate precautionary response here, which I would like to outline to the House. Recognising that no specific warning was given of terrorist attacks in the United States, we immediately strengthened the position of key elements of our armed forces. This included reducing the notice to move of military personnel who would assist the police, if necessary, in guarding our airports. Ground-based air defence assets were also placed at a higher state of readiness in case they were required to guard key economic, governmental and strategic assets throughout the UK. Air defence aircraft of the Royal Air Force are constantly at a state of high readiness. Their role is to deter, to deflect and ultimately to destroy any threat from the skies.

Thankfully, it has not yet been necessary to take further measures or to utilise assets that were earmarked to provide specific degrees of protection earlier this week. Of course, we are continuing to keep this under very close review.

Our rapid reaction on this occasion demonstrated once again the flexibility, professionalism and dedication of our armed forces. It showed again how often we turn to them to help out in civil, as well as military, emergencies.

My direct responsibility is obviously for the armed forces, but I should also like to pay tribute to the very significant role that other Departments and agencies play in these circumstances. The police, for example, would quite rightly take the leading role in response to any incident. They would call on the armed forces' unique assets and capabilities, as well as those provided by other emergency services and local and unitary authorities. As we saw in the United States this week, the police, the fire service and other civil emergency services are often the first to place themselves in harm's way in order that they might help others. I know that our emergency services would have reacted with the same outstanding courage and self-sacrifice as was demonstrated by their American colleagues.

The police have been unstinting in their vigilance. Over the past week, working the longest possible hours, they have provided advice and reassurance to the many members of the British public who have been concerned about any threat to their safety. We can well understand why people have these concerns, but I must reinforce the

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message that the police have been giving: that while we should all be vigilant, we should not allow the events of the past week to damage or undermine our day-to-day way of life. The Government and the police are fully committed to ensuring that individual members of the public are protected in the event of any specific threat to any location or building. Until that occurs, panic or disruption can only play into the hands of those who are trying to destabilise our way of life. That point was well made by the shadow Foreign Secretary.

Police patrols on the streets of London have been intensified and all police forces have been put on full alert. This intensification of their work will continue throughout the weekend and for as long as is judged necessary.

Specific actions have also been taken to ensure that people and buildings that might become particular targets are protected. Military establishments both at home and abroad and Ministry of Defence and other Government Department establishments raised their security states. Security at airports and points of entry to this country were raised to the highest level. Specific advice on what to do was given to all our embassies and made available to British nationals overseas.

The Metropolitan police, working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, have set up an information centre at Scotland Yard where friends and relatives of the missing can seek detailed help and advice. A similar facility is being established in the British consulate in New York.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions co-ordinated the work of the Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Services to facilitate the return of aircraft to airports following the closure of US airspace. All flights over London airspace were halted and private charter flights were grounded, as was the case in other European capital cities.

Andrew Mackinlay: I want to pin down the Government on this. I understand that flights over London are to be restored. I must tell my right hon. Friend that that is foolhardy in the extreme, as it was even before this great tragedy. There has always been the danger over the metropolis of a major technical failure in an aircraft or of a collision. That danger has now been underscored and we should not bend or buckle to the interests of the airline industry, particularly now, and we should not have done so before. I hope that such flights are not restored, and that if they are it is only temporarily.

Mr. Hoon: I will not resolve that matter here today. It is a matter to which my hon. Friend can return if he judges that to be the right thing to do.

Inevitably, these events have caused disruption to many people's travel plans, but I know that they understand the need for increased vigilance at this time. The Government are working closely with industry and the airlines to minimise the disruption. Several military airfields and their facilities were made ready to help with the return of US-bound flights, but in the event the extra capacity was not needed. Assistance was provided with the management of airspace, while non-essential flights were cancelled.

The attacks in the US demonstrate the full evil of international terrorism. These were attacks on democracy and freedom themselves—on the rights of ordinary, innocent people to go peacefully and safely about their lives. To commit acts of this nature requires a fanaticism and wickedness that is beyond our normal comprehension.

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Of course we have intelligence expertise and systems in place that are organised to try to prevent such attacks, but we have to consider what we would do if a terrorist attack of a similar magnitude occurred here. That is why, earlier this year, the Government set up a civil contingencies secretariat. Based within the Cabinet Office, this has drawn on the expertise that has been developed especially in the Home Office but also within other Departments. Part of the secretariat's job is to assess issues that could arise and alert departments, including, if necessary, local agencies that may be affected. That central co-ordinating role is crucial in bringing together the emergency planning functions of all Government Departments. It has been utilised extensively during recent days.

As well as its recent activity, the civil contingencies secretariat has undertaken work with industry and other organisations to identify potential threats, vulnerabilities and interdependencies, and to agree responsibilities for responding to a developing threat. As a result, the consequences of disruption in key sectors of our national infrastructure are now understood far better than they were and better preparations for our response are in place. We are therefore already learning the lessons advocated by the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Ruislip–Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson).

For example, the specific and mutual aid plans that are held by health authorities and trusts to ensure the maintenance of services have been reviewed. Communication plans for maintaining both the machinery of government and the emergency communications network are also in place. In addition, the armed forces stand ready to assist the civil agencies as required. To reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Ruislip–Northwood, that would include reservists, as necessary. All elements of government are now working together even more effectively than they were.

The bravery, resilience and determination of the American people in the face of Tuesday's attack have been a shining example to others around the world. Of course there is shock and of course there is anger, but they have made it clear that they will not allow the people who commit such crimes to win, and they have made it clear that they will see that they are brought to justice.

I want to make it clear to all those who commit these cowardly acts or harbour these brutal criminals that, like the American people, we will not be intimidated by atrocity. Our resolve, our vigilance and our purpose are strong and clear. We can and we will defend our people and our values against terror in whatever form it takes.

That is why, on Wednesday, NATO invoked article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, under which the allies agreed that

The NATO allies of the United States therefore stand ready to provide assistance in exercising their right of self-defence. Each member of the alliance will assist by taking

Any NATO action that might flow from that would be subject to consideration and decision by the North Atlantic Council, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) pointed out. That was a significant act by the NATO allies: an unprecedented step in the history of the alliance.

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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier, the murder of British people in New York is no different from their murder here at home. The United Kingdom has both an interest and an obligation to provide assistance to the United States to help bring those responsible to account and to remove the threat that terrorists pose to the international community.

That assistance has already begun. There have been close contacts between a range of Government agencies in both countries. For example, the Metropolitan police are in close contact with their colleagues in the New York police department. The Treasury and the Bank of England have been in close contact with the Federal Reserve. We are already sharing information that may be useful to the United States authorities in their search for those responsible.

We are looking at what we can do diplomatically and in the international community to reduce the threat of any more events such as those that we saw on Tuesday. We are looking at ways to deal with terrorist groups more effectively, to starve them of their resources and support and to implement these measures from a solid international foundation. We are also examining the contribution that the United Kingdom could make militarily in the event of any requests from the United States to assist in bringing to account those who have organised, abetted and incited these acts.

It is now three days since the events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. We will all have to continue to live with their impact. We are not complacent, but we have taken sensible precautions and we will not be deflected from our purpose. We will continue to pursue our lives and fulfil our responsibilities at home and overseas.

Despite the impact that terrorism has had over recent days, we will not forget that, with our allies, we act as a force for good around the world. We must continue to do so; otherwise, the terrorists will have achieved one of their aims. That is why, for example, our armed forces will continue their important work in Macedonia, which is aimed, as elsewhere in the Balkans, at bringing peace and stability to the region.

We also remain committed to enhancing our close relationship with friends in the Islamic world—a point well made by the right hon. and learned Member for North–East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar). The House will be aware that we are preparing for the largest exercise undertaken by British armed forces in the Gulf for many years. Exercise Saif Sareea will ensure that our armed forces are fully trained to meet their operational tasks, as well as demonstrating our commitment to peace and security in that region. We have no plans to call off the exercise.

We will not be deflected from ensuring that the effectiveness of our armed forces is maintained at the highest level possible, nor from demonstrating our solidarity with our many friends in the Islamic world. I pay tribute to the steadfastness of all those in the Gulf region who have expressed their sympathy and outrage following the events on Tuesday.

The attacks on our friends in the United States were an attack on values that are recognised right across the world. We will not tolerate that. Those values are not divided by religion, creed, race or political party. They will not be overcome by barbarism, arrogance or tyranny.

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The depth and breadth of the condemnation and disgust expressed by nations all around the world are an indication of the level of the evil and the horror of what we witnessed. They should also have brought home to the perpetrators of this crime and to those who give them active or passive support the world's resolve and determination to bring them to justice.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that deeds, not simply words, will ultimately count. Make no mistake: that is what we will be doing. The United Nations, NATO, the European Union and the G8 will all work to the same end. I can assure the House that the United Kingdom will take a full and active role. This Government will never allow the perpetrators of atrocities such as those that we witnessed across the Atlantic on Tuesday to succeed in achieving their objectives.

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Those who carry out such acts of evil will not deter us from doing what is just and what is right. That is the message that I have heard throughout this debate, from representatives of all parties, with all their different approaches to the international organisations. We have many different ideas, but we are all united in a consistent belief that we have to use the democracy that we enjoy here to further the opportunities for other countries to share in our values and traditions. Now is the time for all nations to show where they stand.

Angela Smith (Basildon): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.



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