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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1027—continued

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I thank the Secretary of State, through the Minister, for the advance notice that he gave me and, I am sure, others of that announcement. Will those recruited to the CCRFs be from those already in the Territorial Army? I suspect that many civilians will have relevant specialties, so will the Minister ensure that the message is distributed as widely as possible, not just to existing members of the TA but to others, and that there will be a mechanism for them to join the TA so that they can contribute to this good initiative?

Mr. Ingram: That is a good point. The hon. Gentleman may want to become a recruiting sergeant for the TA and assist us in achieving that objective. People have to be in the TA to participate, and the more who show willingness to participate in this aspect of public service, the better it is for the country. Therefore, my answer is most certainly yes.

The Select Committee made some comments about the Government machinery for responding to the terrorist threat. Not all those comments were entirely

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fair. It suggested that there were signs of complacency. I can assure the House, just as the Government in their response to the report assured the Committee, to which I gave evidence, that there is no complacency, nor will the Government tolerate complacency.

Mr. Kevan Jones: That is reassuring.

Mr. Ingram: I am glad that I have convinced my hon. Friend of the merits of my argument.

The Committee suggested that there was room for improvement in the Government machinery designed to co-ordinate the response to the terrorist threat. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has lead responsibility for counter-terrorist policy and plays a leading role in co-ordinating the issues and measures being taken to strengthen the UK's ability to respond to the terrorist threat. The police have, perhaps, the largest role to play and, as we know, they do so with courage and skill. But many other agencies contribute. The armed forces make an important contribution to the response, contributing their specialist skills and capabilities. The counter-terrorist threat contingency plans are tried and tested and designed to respond to a wide range of terrorist threats.

There is always room for improvement. Plans are tried and tested so that lessons can be learned and improvements made, and to ensure that the response can be adapted to new threats and new forms of threat.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The Minister has had strong support from the official Opposition in the measures that have been taken to counteract the effects of organised terrorist groups, but I take his mind back to the period immediately after 11 September when we had the anthrax scare in the United States and the copycat element of the sending of harmless white powder by individuals who clearly were not organised terrorist groups but opportunist disrupters. Has attention been given to that copycat element of the individual malcontent as opposed to the penetration of organised groups, which I am sure the security services are doing their best to undertake?

Mr. Ingram: It is always difficult to reassure hon. Members about that issue, because the range of the threat is huge. It is almost impossible to apply a common definition, although the hon. Gentleman tried to set out his particular one. Even organised groups choose a time and place and an intended effect. As to individuals, as I am sure he recognises, if they are not in a loop of understanding and are not connected to a group or network, they are very difficult to detect.

All that we can seek to do is ensure maximum public co-operation at all times and encourage people to report anything of a suspicious nature. Clearly, the civil authorities have to put in resources, but they cannot tackle every threat in every month of every year. That is simply not possible. There are not enough resources to be thrown in. If we invested more in one area, a threat might then come from a different direction and a different individual. We must recognise the sort of world in which we now exist, as well as the nature of our domestic and civil society. To some extent, the incidents in the United States involving hoax threats, which also

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had some impact here, showed up some fragility in our response, but we learned from that and put in place mechanisms to deal with it. We learned something from exactly what happened. Indeed, we are currently on an enormous learning curve and all of us have to give our best attention to that.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way. Does he accept that we need not only additional resources, but much greater clarity in the command and control involved in dealing with some of the threats? That is the case not only within the military, where such clarity tends to be good, but in its relationships with local authorities, for example. I know that this is not his primary area of responsibility, but can he give the House some indication of whether serious consideration is being given to including an emergency planning Bill in the Queen's Speech? Many of the people involved believe that such a measure is vital for our defence.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should have asked that question of the Leader of the House, who would probably have given him the same answer: we do not comment about what will be contained in a Queen's Speech. Indeed, I would not even comment on Bills with which the Ministry was specifically concerned unless they had been previously declared as a part of future Government action. None the less, he makes a serious point. There must be joined-up government, and from the perspective of the Ministry of Defence, we must be certain that when we are asked to do something, we can use a coherent and well-brigaded command structure, as that will make our response much better. Clearly, discussions in that regard are under way at all times in government.

The whole question of learning from experience was already inculcated into the Government's mind before the attacks on the United States, because we had already begun to review and improve the contingency planning for managing a disaster. That included the consequences of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. We drew experience from the fuel protest, the floods of winter 2000 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which led to the formation of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office to draw together and co-ordinate the different strands of Government activity that come into play in handling such complex and demanding events. I sit on a number of the committees that deal with such matters. There is a clearly focused dynamic in looking for new ways forward, and the process is about bringing together the strands into a clear, well-focused and well-delivered Government response under the Home Secretary's control.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): On the brigades system, will the brigades be responsible for co-ordination in their regions between the police and other emergency strands or will such co-ordination come under the control of the Ministry of Defence as part of an overall package? In other words, will the brigades be responsible for the day-to-day running of operations?

Mr. Ingram: They are a resource; they do not decide that they will be used. If a request is presented, a decision will be made about how best to use them. They could be

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on their own or alongside regulars as part of another MOD response. It depends on the circumstances. However, a request must be made; the brigades are not self-activating but, like the regular forces, they stand ready to serve the civil powers.

Of course, there are other aspects of defence in the United Kingdom apart from the threat from global terrorism. Although there is a greater hope for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland now than for much of the past 30 years, the need to deploy the armed forces continues. Some 14,000 personnel are currently deployed to the Province and act in support of the police. They continue to face a threat from dissident terrorist organisations and the violence on the streets of Belfast that marred so much of the past year. As well as providing the police with additional resources to secure law and order, they have helped them to carry out wider duties by giving protection and support in the search for and capture of terrorists, their weapons and equipment.

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, members of explosive ordnance disposal teams continue to support the police and protect the lives of the citizens of this country by carrying out their dangerous but essential service of disposing of old unexploded ordnance and dealing with terrorist bomb threats.

The armed forces are called upon to undertake another category of civil contingency operation from time to time. Today, many armed forces personnel from all three services stand ready to provide firefighting support to the community in case of industrial action by members of the Fire Brigades Union. They are working closely with the police, the ambulance service and many others, including non-striking firefighters throughout the country, to mitigate the effects of any strike.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Does not the firefighters dispute raise an anxiety about the way in which our armed forces are configured for expeditionary activity, and the extent to which they are being used around the world? Do we have the capacity to respond with military aid to the civilian power? Is my right hon. Friend worried, like me, about the effect of a possible firefighters' dispute on morale through, for example, loss of leave?

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