Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 399)



  380. You have had a run-out of that, have you?
  (Brigadier Houghton) The Nisha?

  381. That is one example I wanted to talk to you about. You tracked that ship for a third of its journey round the world, from the Horn of Africa to the English Channel.
  (Brigadier Houghton) We did not; the MoD did not.

  382. All right. The intelligence services, if we are to believe what we are told, were made aware that the ship had a potential terrorist element on board. That ship was tracked for a considerable distance. You knew that and you must have set in motion your pre-determined plan for it. You passed Weymouth Bay, which was presumably your first safe harbour for bringing that ship inshore so that it could be searched properly; you let it go past there, you let it go past Bournemouth Bay, which was the second option, and the third option you let it sail past, which was Sandown Bay. You let it then move another 50 or more miles up the Channel. You then intercept it, you turn the ship round and you bring it back to Sandown Bay. You had days, if not weeks, to plan the interception of that ship. You smile, Brigadier, but maybe we should be told here in the Defence Committee in a private session what were the basics about that. None of the civil authorities was warned until the ship was finally brought to a stop in Sandown Bay.
  (Mr Bowen) Can we return to this in private session?

  383. That is the only real threat that has materialised since 11 September that the UK public have been made aware of. The people who know about the sea and know about things like the Navy's ability to stop a ship would have thought it rather strange that you let that ship go so far up the Channel.
  (Mr Bowen) None the less, the ship was stopped and searched. Can I just make one point about public reassurance? I think, Mr Mercer, you mentioned No 5 Squadron and there is an element of confusion that certainly appeared in the media.

Patrick Mercer

  384. Please understand that I did add the caveat that there was an awful lot of flannel in the press about it. I do not wish to wave a finger at you and say, "Please explain No 5 Squadron". None the less, the way it is reported in the press adds to public concern.
  (Mr Bowen) Agreed, but perhaps I can just say on the record that quick reaction aircraft will continue to fly from RAF Coningsby notwithstanding the disbandment of No 5 Squadron. That is the key point in relation to the availability of reaction assets.

  Patrick Mercer: Point taken.

  Chairman: Thank you, and I think in due course you will have to answer Mr Hancock's question on the Nisha in more detail. One thing is absolutely certain to me. We had planned some 25 sets of questions and we are now up to question 6. I do not think we are going to be able to telescope our questions into the time available. I think we will go on to 12.45, Mr Bowen, and then we will have to call you back, I am afraid, because there are so many things we want to ask.

Mr Jones

  385. We have already touched on some of this in terms of reaction and obviously it is dependent in a lot of cases on intelligence in terms of what you do. Can you tell us something about what the mechanism is for initiating action? Let us say you get police intelligence that a nuclear power station is under threat. What is the system for how plans are put in place to authorise that, both nationally and also, more importantly, at a local level? How is it co-ordinated in terms of getting information down and making sure that the plans are in place to counter that potential threat?
  (Mr Bowen) In the event of a detailed threat emerging against an installation such as a nuclear power station, that is something that would be centred on the Cabinet Office very rapidly. There would be a Cabinet Office reaction. There would be a Home Office lead to that. I would imagine that there would be a summoning of a committee which could be available within an hour to have discussions and to assess intelligence.

  386. Who would this committee be made up of?
  (Mr Bowen) This would be a terrorist threat. This would be effectively the Cabinet Office briefing room that would be activated and, depending on the certainty of the information, it would either be at official level or it might be ministerial. If it is clear intelligence you might end up with the Prime Minister in the chair, it might be the Home Secretary in the chair. It will depend upon as it were the quality and the nature of the threat, the timing of it.

  387. Let us say it is a gold nugget piece of intelligence you have got. What would happen?
  (Mr Bowen) My expectation—and it is not my direct business in the sense that somebody else runs it—would be that the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister would want to hold the meeting with his immediate ministerial colleagues and with officials to determine a course of action. It would flow from that meeting and there would be police, the military, intelligence agencies and others involved. Presumably the DTI would have a role in it. All those who have an interest would be assembled around the room to deal with that issue. The information would flow very rapidly in terms of getting it down the chain of command, certainly the police chain of command, out to the locality.

  388. Let us say you needed a military response to it. How would that go down the chain of command to the local level? How would you get that activated?
  (Mr Bowen) If the requirement was for a military reaction defence ministers would need to agree to that. It could be done round the table, assuming the ministers were there (which would be very likely) and then that would flow through the normal chain of command which involves the Director of Operations in the Ministry of Defence and the Director of Military Operations, Brigadier Houghton, but maybe I should ask him to take it on from there.
  (Brigadier Houghton) It depends on two things. If there was not a general change to the threat, that would be handled on the normal basis through the TIDO Committee, a Cabinet Committee which reviews the threat of Irish and domestic terrorism, and if it is just something that is on a general basis, non-specific or actionable, that would result in the dissemination of a threat warning and a change to the alert state, so that in a generic sense the alert state on military property was increased and similarly in the civil sector. If there was a specific piece of actionable intelligence then it might lead to COBR being called to see what sort of contingencies might be put in place in order to protect against a specific threat materialising. The lead in all this counter terrorism is the Home Office and the police take the lead in the prosecution of counter terrorism within Northern Ireland and mainland GB. As far as whatever military assets might be put at the disposal of—

  389. Even if it was a threat, for example, against an Army installation or a defence place?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Correct. If there was to be any putting of our counter terrorist contingency capability in support of the civil authority then clearly that is done with ministerial approval but it would be delegated down to the Director of Operations sitting within COBR with certain agreements as regards the specific plans and involvement and then deployed to the ground. The police, you may not be aware, have a tiered system of command from bronze and silver to gold level of command. There will be a military opposite number at each of those levels of command acting in support of the civil authority. If it is a specific thing where experience would more lend itself towards something like a hijack resolution I could then go into the detailed procedures of how that would be handled, but I think that again it is something that is sensitive and not for the public arena. I can give more details in closed session.

  Chairman: Thank you. I understand the current threat in the United States involved the FBI contacting 32,000 law enforcement agencies, so I hope things are not quite as complicated as that; otherwise your computers are going to crash.

Patrick Mercer

  390. Turning now to the brigade commanders and their responsibilities, a disturbing piece of information that I have had is that one Chief Emergency Planning Officer has not been invited to the Joint Service Co-ordination Group for 15 years since his appointment. How effective are the Joint Service Co-ordination Groups and the regional brigade commanders who do these jobs? How much of their role has enhanced since 11 September?
  (Brigadier Houghton) It is fair to say that it is a bit like the curate's egg. Depending which regional brigade you looked at, which chap is in command of it, what the quality of the local authorities might be like, the leading elements of the blue light services, would effect whether it was better or worse. I am going back now in time, certainly pre-11 September, probably pre-foot and mouth. I have touched on lessons from foot and mouth. The quality of the local level liaison in crisis management got a bit of a wake-up call by foot and mouth, hence spawning the creation of the CCS. I think also there is a degree to which it has suffered in that ten years ago the Cold War type regional planning authorities were in place, but since then the process of devolution of local government has taken its place. In the early 1990s there was still a two-tiered arrangement for local council authorities and they were aggregated up into government regions, and there was then a quite robust manner in which, in terms of integrated contingency planning, the local brigadier and his group interfaced with the government in the regions and the regional bases there. I think that had been eroded over time. It got a wake-up call because of foot and mouth and has received another wake-up call in the aftermath of 11 September. I think it is now significantly improving. In some ways it will already have significantly improved. It is really within the parish of the CCS as it were from my perspective to correct some of the complexity that has been introduced into the devolved government and local authority by the now very much greater number of points of contact that exist. I think that this is something that they are working on. I am observing what is someone else's area.

  Mr Jones: Can I come in on this one because the one that Patrick refers to is one of the better examples. It is not one council but the co-ordination of a number of councils that I was involved in and I think it was one of the better emergency planning joint boards. What you are saying to me basically is that this has been allowed to develop over time, but you have a good example of well co-ordinated local authority emergency planning in this case between the five local authorities, which is a leader in this country in terms of providing emergency planning, but if the head of that has not even been invited then it strikes me that the link between emergency planning officers and local authorities and the Joint Services Co-ordination Group does not really exist, does it, in practice?


  391. It may well be so but it is not for the Brigadier to answer. He will be in enough trouble after today.
  (Mr Bowen) There is an effort being run by the Cabinet Office on emergency planning in England and Wales. There was a consultation paper launched in August which was meant to come to some kind of conclusion I think about now. I do not think anybody would dispute the fact that we do not believe that all the arrangements are satisfactory in terms of local liaison and it is an area where there needs to be improvement.

Mr Cran

  392. When will there be?
  (Mr Bowen) I think we ought to see what the result of the consultation document is and what the proposals are that come out. The idea is that there should be different procedures and different proposals but that is what needs to be applied.

  393. When do you think they should be in place?
  (Mr Bowen) I understand that the Cabinet Office are intending that they should have concluded their consultation some time soon and they will produce recommendations then.[8]


  394. Mr Bowen, I read the consultative document very early, before September 11th, it seems to me the military have been air brushed out of their thinking. Did you get a copy of that consultative document? When did you get it? Were you involved? It seems to me they have obliterated the military from it.
  (Mr Bowen) The MoD was engaged and consulted in the process.

  395. At what stage? Perhaps you could find that out.
  (Mr Bowen) Before my time.

  396. Not that long.
  (Mr Bowen) I was not there in August.

Mr Cran

  397. What does "involved" mean? Does it just mean letters were exchanged? Does it mean you were consulted properly? Can you outline what the consultative procedures were so that we can have an idea whether the Chairman's question is valid or not?
  (Mr Bowen) Can I ask Mr Davenport who was here at the time.
  (Mr Davenport) Yes, we were consulted last summer before the document was published. There was a process of meetings, discussions and correspondence.

  398. You are happy you have not been air brushed out, is that it?
  (Mr Davenport) I am happy.


  399. Did you not say "Where the hell is the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces in all this? Could you not have got at least a paragraph in to indicate to the reader that it was not just a local authority exercise? Perhaps you could drop us a note on this because I think it is a really important point.
  (Mr Bowen) Yes.

  Chairman: Again, it is outside your remit but we have seen a very detailed questionnaire sent to all of the London authorities and I would be delighted to see the responses, not just in London but in every other one of the authorities. I think that will reveal—if they are prepared to answer honestly—very clearly, Brigadier, whether what you said is valid or not. I suspect strongly most of the questions will remain unanswered or improperly answered or, well I will not make any libellous statements despite the protection of privilege. That is not your responsibility.

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