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Speaker's Statement

3.31 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have looked into the point of order that the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) raised last Monday about the names published in support of early-day motion 949.

It appears that some of the Members listed as supporting the motion had been told by the sponsor that their support would be assumed unless they indicated otherwise. Some of those Members have informed me that they were not aware that their names were being added to the motion.

This is an important matter. Members should be aware that adding a name to any motion, like tabling a parliamentary question, is a formal proceeding in Parliament. Members may give the Table Office instructions on behalf of another Member, but it is incumbent on any Member who does that to ensure that he has the explicit consent of the Member concerned.

I acknowledge that it is not the first time that this has happened. My view is that simply saying that names will be added to a motion unless a Member indicates otherwise is not sufficient and risks embarrassing Members whose names are used in that way. I look to the House to ensure that it does not happen again.

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Castlereagh Break-in

3.32 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the break-in at Castlereagh police station.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): On Sunday evening, several people broke into a special branch office at Castlereagh in Northern Ireland, assaulted the duty officer and stole several documents.

There has inevitably been much public speculation about who was responsible for the incident and the exact nature of the documents that were taken. The House will understand that, in the context of a live criminal investigation, it is not helpful to put into the public domain information that would otherwise be known only by the perpetrators or the investigators. Suffice it to say that all lines of inquiry remain open. As to the nature of the documentation, the Chief Constable has established a high-level team to assess any impact that its theft could cause.

At this sensitive moment when the damage is still being assessed and a variety of remedial measures are being taken, I hope that the House will understand why I cannot be more forthcoming. However, I can reassure the House that the Government, like the Chief Constable, are absolutely committed to taking all necessary steps to mitigate any damage from this serious incident.

The Chief Constable has appointed Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Wright to take charge of the criminal investigation. He has also referred the matter to the ombudsman. In addition, I have established a review to proceed in parallel with the criminal investigation that will report to me. It will be conducted by Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, who has extensive experience of policing and security issues. He will be assisted by Mr. Colin Smith, a former inspector of constabulary and chief constable of Thames Valley, who will act as an assessor.

I am placing Sir John's terms of reference in the Library of the House for the information of Members. The purpose of the review is to establish how the incident could have happened, to assess the extent of any damage caused to national security, to audit the measures taken in response to the incident and to identify any wider lessons on national security.

Any breach of national security is a matter of grave concern. The work undertaken by the special branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland bears directly on the safety of lives both in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom more generally. I am determined therefore that we will establish the facts surrounding this serious incident as quickly as possible, and ensure that all necessary remedial action is being taken.

Mr. Davies: The House will be grateful for that statement. No one will be in any doubt as to the seriousness of the incident for the morale and credibility of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and particularly for the viability of special branch operations. Police agents will obviously be very reluctant to maintain contact with their handlers while they fear that they might have

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been compromised. New sources are likely to be fearful of coming forward, and agents who think that they may have been exposed will face the agonising dilemma of whether to flee the Province, thereby perhaps increasing suspicion about them, or stay there, risking their lives.

It is always possible, by mismanaging a crisis of this kind, to make it even worse. Does the Secretary of State agree that such an incident needs to be managed in a decisive but controlled and co-ordinated way? Otherwise, uncertainty, demoralisation and public disquiet will all be aggravated. Is it not the case that in this instance the Government's handling has not been controlled or coherent?

The right hon. Gentleman said that there will be three inquiries. Of course the police must conduct a normal criminal investigation, but it is far from clear why it is necessary to have two further inquiries, one conducted by the police ombudsman and another under the direction of Sir John Chilcot. Is it not the case that the police ombudsman has the powers to conduct inquiries only where police officers are concerned, so if her inquiry runs up against individuals who are not police officers, she will be outside her remit? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is highly undesirable in such a case that there should be two separate inquiries? Clearly, we want one inquiry with a single responsibility to get to all the facts, and in which no one can say that certain matters are the responsibility of someone else. This action is not co-ordinated or controlled, and it needs a good deal more justification than the Secretary of State gave it.

There has been a spate of rumours and speculation, as the Secretary of State says. Can he give the House an unqualified assurance that those rumours do not derive from press briefings given by himself, the Chief Constable or anyone responsible to him? Can he also give the House an assurance that if there have been leaks, he will undertake to investigate them?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in retrospect it is unfortunate that he did not take the initiative and come to the House himself immediately after the incident, as he could have done on Monday, or ask one of his deputies to do so in his place? That would have enabled him to pre-empt the rumour mill and give an authoritative account of the position. Instead, he preferred to brief the press yesterday and had to be dragged to the Dispatch Box today by the official Opposition. Is not that an unfortunate way to treat the House? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that when the Chilcot review, which we shall certainly support in any way we can, reports, he will take the initiative and come to the House to make a statement on that?

Dr. Reid: First, I hope that I have not given the impression that I do not regard this issue as serious. Indeed, I have gone out of my way to say that I regard any breach of national security as serious in its immediate and wider implications, and I would not want to diminish in any way the seriousness with which I regard this incident.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, any breach of national security immediately raises problems of operational effectiveness and the prospect of putting anyone who is involved in danger. That is why we are assessing what may have been taken and why I want Sir John Chilcot to have regard, among other matters, to

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damage assessment of specific and more general operational capability and of the threat posed to individuals.

The hon. Gentleman demanded, as a general proposition, that I act in a decisive and controlled way before attacking everything that I have done as decisive and controlled. I did act decisively yesterday, and there are various reasons why I thought it absolutely necessary to do what I did. Had the situation been such that the only or best option was to come to the House first, then I would have done so, but under the circumstances I was wise to discuss the matter with not only my security Minister but the Chief Constable and others in Northern Ireland before acting as quickly and decisively as possible.

In fairness, the hon. Gentleman might have informed the House that my security Minister and I had a conversation with him, as well as others. That is not to say that it is not preferable to come to the House. As a general proposition, I agree with that and will try to do it whenever it is in my power to do so. I hope that he understands, however, that with fast-moving events, when decisiveness and control are so important, it is necessary to take decisive and controlled action, as he said.

The hon. Gentleman also said that there would be three inquiries. I do not know what he bases that on. He agrees that there should be a police inquiry, which is absolutely necessary. I take it that he agrees that I should have taken decisive action to initiate a wider review. It is not yet apparent that there will definitely be a third inquiry by the ombudsman, but the Chief Constable acted correctly and appropriately by referring the matter to him when he decided that the threshold for the ombudsman's powers of inquiry had been met. To put it succinctly, the hon. Gentleman knows that the threshold for the ombudsman's powers to inquire are met when there may have been, or has been, a disciplinary or criminal offence by a member of the police. That threshold was met and the Chief Constable acted properly. It is now up to the ombudsman to consider the matter.

On the hon. Gentleman's other points, no one to my knowledge with my authority or in my organisation has given details to the press of the incident as far as I am aware. Indeed, I will be amazed if that is the case because so much of what has appeared in the press has been inaccurate either in the detail or on the process. Although I should like nothing better than to rebut some of the inaccuracies, he will understand that on something as important and sensitive as this incident, that would put me down an avenue in which it would be difficult not to discuss the matter in detail. I hope that he and the House will be tolerant if I cannot give as much detail as I might like.

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