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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1044—continued

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Now that he has had time to get the paper that he prepared, does it refer not only to the issue of nuclear power stations within the UK, but to implications for terrorist threat of the international plutonium trade between the UK and Japan?

Mr. George: It covers everything. I shall hand my hon. Friend a copy and test him on it later. However, I shall not make light of what is a serious issue.

I shall focus on a couple of issues in the Defence Committee report. I have referred to our methodology and how comprehensive it was. The problem with a Select Committee report is that if 30 per cent. of it is critical of the Government, they are quite happy with it. The report does not spend much time saying how wonderful the Government are, but concentrates on critical evaluation. Although much has been done that has been absolutely correct, the Select Committee, at no political risk to itself, pointed out where we were going wrong. We had every right to do that and I am pleased that the Government are taking it in the constructive spirit in which it was written.

In our strategic defence review monitoring exercise, the Defence Committee did not criticise the Government for stating:

That may have been true in 1998, but today it is a historical approach. Military home defence appears in the SDR as a military task in the section on regional conflict inside the NATO area. No forces were specifically committed to it and the Ministry of Defence told us at the start of our inquiry that the security and defence of the UK continues to rest on our membership of NATO and our willingness and ability to participate in operations and tasks abroad with partner countries in mutual self-defence. Conversely, terrorist activity within the UK, whatever its source, is seen as criminal activity and in most cases the operational lead rests with the police.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Has the right hon. Gentleman any idea from his studies of the time why, at the time of the strategic defence review, so little attention was given to the possibility of an extremist Islamist terrorist threat, when I think that we are all aware of the fact that, from quite early in the 1990s, the security service and the secret intelligence service recognised it as the next possible threat over the horizon? Where does he think the breakdown of communication between Government agencies occurred?

Mr. George: It probably took place about 1991, when the cold war was seen to end and the eyes of the intelligence services were taken off the range of threats. They looked at substitutes for the Soviets, who were not seen as the threat that they had been. They looked at crime, and I suspect that they did not look internationally and domestically at where other threats might exist. In fairness, the blame—if there is to be blame—goes back 10 or 12 years, and now they will spend another 10 or 12 years in making up for the fact that they averted their eyes to threats of political and religious extremism, wherever those threats exist.

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Dr. Lewis: I am sorry to intervene again, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman has rather missed my point. As I understood it, the security and intelligence services did appreciate the upcoming Islamist extremist threat from the early to mid-1990s onwards. My concern is that that appreciation by the intelligence services, which turned out to be accurate, does not appear to have been taken on board by those people who drew up the SDR in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. George: I honestly cannot say. The hon. Gentleman was closer to the then Government than I was in those days. I look forward to his observations and insider knowledge as to whether what he says is right.

The Minister announced the results of the Ministry of Defence's consultation exercise on the role of the reserves in home defence. As I understand it, the proposal has not changed significantly as a result of the consultation, although the new forces are to be renamed civil contingencies reaction forces rather than reserve reaction forces. The new name is perhaps a little odd if their responsibilities are to respond only to home defence incidents as opposed to the wide range of civil emergencies in which assistance from the military might be sought. The Defence Committee will want to look carefully at the proposals, and although we welcome the decision to give back to the reserves a role in home defence, there are a number of issues of concern including, for example, the notice at which they could be made available in response to a terrorist incident.

Our report questions how the commanders could choose between regular and reserve forces if both were available. I do not believe that these proposals answer that question. It would be demoralising for volunteer reserves if, having put themselves forward and having been trained, they saw regular troops deployed in their place. As we noted in our report, no reserves were deployed in the fuel crisis in 2000, and only about 10 per cent. of those who assisted with the floods in autumn 2000 and the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 were reservists. Those were not home defence incidents but they suggest a pattern of calling first upon the regular forces.

In December of last year, the Secretary of State set out what he described as a formidable catalogue of questions that the SDR new chapter would have to address. At the top of that list were questions about how we should strike the balance between home defence and seeking to attack terrorists in their bases or in transit. These are fundamental questions—they are complex and deserve serious analysis.

We can see how much work is being done in the United States on this issue, including the appointment of Governor Ridge as director of homeland security and the proposal before Congress to create a fully fledged department of homeland security. That would bring together many existing agencies such as the coast guard, the border patrol, the customs service, immigration officials, the transport security administration and the federal emergency management agency. I am not suggesting that we follow the Americans slavishly, especially as their circumstances are rather different from our own. However, I contrast the thoroughness

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with which the issues are being examined and addressed by the United States with the bland statements in the new chapter. It says:

That is fine.

Mr. Chaytor: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. George: In a moment, I promise. I will give my hon. Friend some more of my writings if he wishes and has the patience, especially on history, in which we both have a great interest.

This country did not attempt to deal with Irish republican terrorism campaigns by attacking their bases in the Republic of Ireland. Israeli attempts to destroy the bases of Palestinian terrorists have not so far been an unqualified success. I can see why, at both the rhetorical and the military strategic level, it is right to believe that we should strike at the source of the conflict. However, terrorists, unlike Saddam Hussein in the past, are not likely to line themselves up in such formations as easily to be destroyed.

The Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into the new chapter and we will publish our report in due course. However, I am a little disappointed that the Government and the Ministry of Defence do not seem publicly to have treated this fundamental question with the seriousness that it requires.

Mr. Chaytor: In one respect, my right hon. Friend's subsequent remarks have pre-empted the purpose of my question. In the context of attacking the terrorist in his base, does my right hon. Friend think that an attack on Iraq by the United States—either alone, with the United Kingdom or with an international coalition—would be likely to increase or decrease the threat of the al-Qaeda terrorist network?

Mr. George: I will not go too far down that road. I can certainly speak to my hon. Friend about this privately, as the question requires more than a glib three-sentence answer. As yet, I am not convinced that al-Qaeda is alive and well in Iraq. There may be sufficient threats to this country and others to require a military response, but I very much hope not.

I said at the start of my remarks that I could touch on only a few of the issues raised in our report, but I want briefly to refer to one other area that has already been mentioned. I refer to legislation and the handling of major emergencies and disasters, including terrorist incidents. The Minister was circumspect in his response. The Government recognised well before 11 September that existing legislation was inadequate and set up a review of emergency planning in England and Wales. The consultation process for that review was in the second half of last year, and in fact straddled 11 September, so that many of the responses took the immediate lessons of those terrible events into account.

It is now more than a year since 11 September, and so far nothing has emerged. In our report, we recommended that the Government publish their proposals as a matter of urgency, with the explicit aim of introducing legislation in the 2002–03 parliamentary

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Session. I am sure that if I were to press the Minister on the issue today, he would again give the standard line, which is in the Government's response to our report, that he cannot pre-empt the Queen's Speech. So we will just have to wait. Except that on 9 September, the Government placed in the Library a progress report on the United Kingdom and the campaign against international terrorism. It is an interesting document which, regrettably, I suspect that few people have read because of its timing.

At the end of the document, there is a list of the Government's priorities for the next year in the campaign against terrorism, one of which is to protect the United Kingdom

Perhaps the Minister, even if he cannot predict the contents of the Queen's Speech, can at least confirm that that still remains one of the Government's priorities for the coming year.

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