Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



Mr Hancock

  360. One final point on the role of the local authorities and the others. We have been told by the Association of Chief Police Officers that they have been heavily involved in re-writing this next chapter on the Strategic Defence Review, updating it and writing this last chapter. Have local authorities been encouraged to have an input into that new chapter about their role in working with the military in coping with these problems that could beset us?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Both the police and the Home Office have been part of the process so far, but I could not say within the Home Office to quite what level that has gone down to in terms of local authorities.
  (Mr Bowen) I would add that part of the object of the consultation process is to get the wider public involved, local authorities of course.

Mr Jones

  361. I am sorry; I would not consider the local authorities are the wider public. In this they are part of the partnership, are they not, in delivering what Mr Hancock is trying to get at in terms of response to emergency that could take place in their area? I would have thought that it would have been important. I know some people have said that they do not think local government is very relevant but I would say that it is important to have them involved in the early process.
  (Mr Bowen) I do not know the answer to whether the Home Office engage with them but we can find out.

Mr Hancock

  362. Can I ask one final question? This goes back to the answer you gave earlier, Brigadier, about the national key points. We were told in a previous meeting that there were X number of these national key points. What was not clear was whether they have been added to or subtracted from, some sites taken out to make way for new sites. You gave a firm assurance that none had been taken out of that list, but did you say none had been added? That is what I want to make sure of.
  (Brigadier Houghton) My firm understanding is that of the 160-plus that we have at the moment in terms of MoD key points there has been no recent change in terms of additions or subtractions.

  Mr Hancock: That is interesting, because the top level budget holders told us that they had received no increase in expenditure to cover any future security needs and that they would have to absorb any new locations from within their existing budgets. Your assurance that none has been added or taken out is okay for the time being. We need to probe that a bit more later.

  Mr Cran: We have covered a number of the issues that I want to raise but I want to raise them again because I am rather unclear as to where you are all coming from. You said, Mr Bowen, in your statement that this threat is not new, it has been given added prominence and impetus by the events of 11 September, much of what you have to describe pre-dates 11 September, so I get a very strong impression from you that you really rather disagreed with Mr Hancock when he said to you that 11 September was a seminal event. You are giving us the impression that it is all under control. Is that unfair or fair?

  Mr Jones: It is the Simon Webb approach.

Mr Cran

  363. Exactly.
  (Mr Bowen) We have had contingency plans in place for a number of years, and I am really talking about counter-terrorism now. Those plans took account of various scenarios which I do not think we should go into in public but you may want to go into in more detail in private. Those scenarios remain relevant and indeed, although the nature of the threat may have taken a step up in terms of scale, the kinds of scenarios that we are talking about still relate to the kinds of plans that we have in place. If we take the example before Christmas of the ship that was apprehended in the Channel, that was not in accordance with a plan that was in existence which specifically and directly met that scenario, but none the less it could be quickly adapted to respond to it. What we are saying is that the generic planning is right but it needs to be revised and probably uplifted in some cases. What I am saying is that this is not complacency but we could not be criticised for not having done anything before. We did have plans in place and we believe that they are still relevant. They need to be revised and some of them have been revised. I am talking about rogue civil aircraft in particular, which was an area where we were not geared in the right direction and that needed a significant amount of work. In general, in dealing with the kinds of threat that we are talking about, I think we have the right plans in place subject to revision and updating.

  364. That is a very carefully crafted answer without any question of doubt at all, but it does not really tell me what I want to know, which is that if we go back to 11 September and a similar thing had occurred in the City of London, would your contingency plans and all the rest of it have done any better than the Americans?
  (Mr Bowen) I do not think they would have and that is where we have been completely up-front and said that, dealing with a rogue civilian aircraft, I do not think that was an area where our plans were up to date.

  Mr Cran: Can I get this right? I understand about a rogue aircraft because that was probably not the first but it was almost the first. How many other areas were you unprepared for before 11 September, such as the rogue aircraft? You are talking to me about scenarios, contingency plans which tell you where the threats are. How many areas were we unprepared for before 11 September?


  365. Would you like to give some of that in public and some in private or most in private or all in public?
  (Mr Bowen) I think I will need to reflect too, if I may, Mr Cran. I am not sure that there are as it were large areas of complete absence of capability. I think that broadly the span of terrorist activity that we have been aware of in terms of tracking what has been going on around the world from intelligence sources are areas where we have had to make plans and make preparations in case they are directed towards us.

Mr Cran

  366. But you can understand the problem from my point of view and perhaps from the Committee's point of view, that we really are talking in extraordinary generality. I as a member of the public, if I were listening to you, would say to you that you are an exceedingly able civil servant, which I am absolutely sure you are, you have got absolutely the right attitude to the whole thing, but you are not telling me what I want to know, which is, as a citizen, am I going to be protected against suicide bombers, for instance? Does that come into your contingency plan?
  (Brigadier Houghton) I can perhaps help a little bit here in as much as clearly work that had been done prior to 11 September and work that has been done since will never be able to have a contingency that meets every conceivable scenario. It would be quite impossible. What you can seek to have is capability that, so long as there is intelligence, can be put into operation in order to prevent a particular scenario or incident coming to pass and then you can have capability which, if that is unsuccessful, has the ability to manage the consequences of it. Clearly, within the nature and range of threats which could be posed to the United Kingdom, there are certain areas where only the military have the sort of capability that can proactively deal with it. Examples would be the defence of the integrity of the UK air space, to a limited extent of the integrity of UK waters, and to an extent in dealing with the CBRN range of incidents. In respect of the one that you specifically make, suicide bombing, it is quite impossible without accurate intelligence to defend every conceivable installation from an attack unless there is some form of intelligence lead that can prompt the right security and counter terrorism arrangements to be put in place. What I would reassure you of is that there is certainly no reckless complacency about the nature or the proficiency of the military capability that is put in support of the civil authority to deal with these sorts of contingencies.

  367. But I did not suggest for a second that there was any complacency. What I am trying to get at is that you have an awful lot of "buts" and an awful lot of "maybes" in that answer you have just given, with which I have some sympathy. But what we have to be careful about in this particular debate is that we do not on the one hand take your answers, Mr Bowen, which were larded with reassurance and so on, without putting them alongside your comments, Brigadier. Moving on, I would just love to know what you mean by saying in your statement that a great deal of work has been done to ensure that the contingency plans already in place could withstand the new challenge of terrorism on the scale witnessed on 11 September. Could you just canter us through that? What have you done? What is the work?
  (Mr Bowen) The work has largely been done in the Cabinet Office, with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the lead, looking at resilience in the round, and they have set up three groups that are taking forward this work to see whether we are prepared and whether revisions need to be made. One of the groups is focused on the resilience of London, another on UK resilience more generally and a third in relation to the CBRN threat. That is a rolling programme of work that is being done.

  368. But we can be assured here, can we, that if something unexpected happened tomorrow this rolling plan and the contingencies and all the reviews and all the rest of it would meet it? Is that what you are saying? Remember, it is quite a commitment to give if you do say it.
  (Mr Bowen) Indeed, and I hesitate to give it to you as an absolute commitment because one never knows what is round the corner.

  369. Is it not your business to anticipate what is round the corner?
  (Mr Bowen) Yes, it is, but I do not have second sight.

  370. But it is your business to look ahead and to say that 11 September was a seminal event; nothing now can be ruled out. That is the mind set you should have, is it not?
  (Mr Bowen) It is, absolutely.

  371. You are not giving me the impression that that is what is happening.
  (Mr Bowen) You are asking me, Mr Cran, to give you an absolute assurance that every single contingency is taken care of. I cannot give you that because I do not have second sight. What we can do is to say that we are applying ourselves both with imagination (in the worst sense) of what might happen and in terms of being informed by intelligence, intelligence meaning information as to what those possible events could be. The object is to put ourselves in a position to be able to deal with those. I would give you absolutely as much reassurance as I can.

  372. Let us tackle this from the other end for two seconds. You are saying to me, with a proposition I understand and to some extent support, that you cannot guard against everything. I agree with that. You tell me what the official view of the Government is, or whatever body you represent is, on where the boundaries are. Tell me that one. You must have a view about that because if you do not have a view about that you cannot reassure anybody about anything.
  (Mr Bowen) I am not sure that I can give you what those boundaries are at the moment.

  373. I would have to say, Chairman, as one member of this Committee, that I am rather unsatisfied that however many months after the event we have not even reached a stage of saying that we know where the boundaries are and that we could defend the great British people from the sort of attacks that occurred on 11 September. That is worrying.
  (Mr Davenport) Can I say a couple of things on that? It is one of the major functions of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat which has been set up in the Cabinet Office to look ahead and, in a process called "horizon scanning", to try and identify as far as it is possible to do so possible future crises and contingencies and what sort of attacks might be round the corner. That is one of their prime functions, the "blue skies" approach as it is sometimes called. Can I also say specifically on your point about suicide bombers, as Brigadier Houghton says, that it is extremely difficult to defend against each and every form of suicide attack, but the work that we have done to develop a more robust response to hijacked civilian airliners has been very much with a suicide type of attack in mind, and to some extent with the planning that we are doing on shipping also.

  Mr Cran: I just leave you with the thoughts of moi

  Chairman: Mao, did you say?

Mr Cran

  374. Moi. I leave you with this thought. You cannot tell us everything, of course not, because you made quite clear in your memorandum that there are things which, if made public, would simply help the other side, but I am suggesting to you that the great British people sooner or later are going to have enough of the Whitehall flannel and they are going to need a great deal more detail than we are getting now. I suggest to you that if we cannot get it in the Defence Committee of the House of Commons who can? I leave that thought with you.
  (Mr Bowen) I understand that, and I think the Ministry of Defence is very much concerned about the public perceptions and what people feel and what your constituents feel. That is a point that has been made in this Committee before. That reassurance, that understanding, that sense of things are being done, is very important without any doubt at all.

  Mr Cran: It is important but you have not succeeded. I have to say as an individual in this country, a not uninformed one, that you are not giving me the reassurance that I am going to be defended against anything in particular. All I am hearing from you is all the difficulties. The Brigadier has spent a lot of time outlining them. I return to my point. You are going to have to come out of your bomb shelter sooner or later and say, "We can protect you against this, this and that but we cannot protect you against the rest".

  Chairman: I think we have flogged this one to death.

  Mr Cran: We have not.

  Chairman: I am not certain that if we list publicly those things which we cannot defend against that is going to be to our advantage.

  Mr Cran: I would love to have a private session of this Committee. That at least would give some reassurance to somebody.

  Chairman: All right. Perhaps we will have a private session. What time shall we have a private session?

  Mr Cran: Keep going, Chairman, and you will see if I am here.

Patrick Mercer

  375. Clearly Winston Churchill was not expecting the sort of armed problems he had before the First World War and that is why he had to turn out the Scots Guards to deal with them. Once that had happened there was a contingency plan. With the campaign of the Irish Republican Army the contingency planning progressed as their campaign progressed. Therefore one was not really expecting a mortar attack on No 10 Downing Street. It happened and a contingency plan occurred. I have no doubt that there are contingency plans for explosions against key points or other sites inside the City and elsewhere. I am concerned though about your ability to react to the scale of the events. I understand that if something goes bang it does not really matter; you have a plan, but is it big enough to deal with a big bang? For instance, the day after aircraft crashed into the World Trade Centre as I understand it the Americans had combat air patrol over their cities flown by reservists. I find that remarkable but they did. We saw nothing like that. Were the Americans over-reacting? Were we under-reacting? Did we not have the resources to mount that sort of reassurance and protection? Then the public hears that No 5 Squadron, which is responsible for protecting the capital, is going to be disbanded. I appreciate there is a lot of flannel involved in that report but it is not at all reassuring.
  (Mr Bowen) Just on reactions following 11 September, actions were taken. There was an exclusion zone set up around London, an air exclusion zone. Aircraft were diverted so that they were not overflying the capital.

  376. For three days?
  (Mr Bowen) For a bit longer than that.[6]

Mr Hancock

  377. No, three days.
  (Mr Bowen) Actions were taken but this was risk management. These are decisions that have to be taken. Do you decide that you will have no aircraft overflying London in perpetuity? Do you decide that you assess the risk, you consider what the pros and cons are and you decide to change back to a different kind of state? There were reactions. There may not have been combat air patrol flying over the UK. I do not think that there was no reaction. There was reaction and indeed it was a properly assessed response. I guess inevitably there was a difference between the United States and New York, which was actually attacked, and we who were possibly going to be attacked and we had to make an assessment as to the likelihood of that and what we could do to defend ourselves. Can I just hand over to Brigadier Houghton?

  Chairman: Just before you come on to that, we do have a section on defending against an air attack which we can go into in more detail.

  Mr Jones: The more I hear of what our response to this is the more concerned I get, frankly, because the Civil Contingency Secretariat frankly does not give me a great deal of confidence and you are not giving me a great deal of confidence today either. I compare two different approaches. I get the impression that what we are doing is the usual, as I call it, Simon Webb approach to things: stiff upper lip, "Everything is all right, we know what we are doing in terms of various Civil Service committees will sort this out; you do not need to worry". I am sorry, but that is not going to wash, I do not think, sooner or later with the public and it certainly will not wash with Mr Cran or with me. I compare that with what we saw when we were last over in Washington when we met one of Tom Ridge's deputies, where they are looking at all these things, including air conditioning systems on buildings for anthrax, tankers, a whole range of areas they are looking at—not that they are going to solve every single thing, and I appreciate the point that you are making about that; I think that they are overdoing it and trying to give reassurances about a 100 per cent risk-free world which I do not accept you can do, but at least what they are doing very publicly is giving reassurance that things are being looked at. You are not giving that assurance at all and, to be honest, the other thing we are up against here which is very concerning is the usual Whitehall depart mentalism, "It is not my responsibility; it is somebody else's responsibility". If that is not pulled together, if something happens in this country, which may well happen and I accept that you cannot guard against every risk and you have to work on intelligence—somebody will start asking very clear questions about why we have not been prepared, because six months on to say that we are not really looking at certain areas I find astonishing. We have got to do something sooner or later about reassuring the public, otherwise questions will start being asked.

Mr Rapson

  378. Can I just add a point there? I agree with what you are saying, that we cannot cover every possible eventuality, but can you give the Committee at least the comfort of knowing that an appraisal is done whenever there is terrorist activity throughout the world, that when there is an incident we actually do an appraisal; for example, Japan, the Sarin attack, Israel, the suicide bombing, the Yemen, the ship attack, Africa, the embassy bombing, Florida, the anthrax attack. Do we take lessons from each one of those incidents?
  (Brigadier Houghton) Yes, we do. I take your point about this interdepartmental pointing of fingers, but we have a classic case here of the House of Commons Defence Committee asking the right questions of the wrong people. This should be being asked of the Home Office.

  Mr Jones: I do not accept that at all.

Mr Hancock

  379. They passed the buck to you. You must have read the transcript, Brigadier. They passed the buck to you.[7]

  (Brigadier Houghton) I find from my dealings with the Home Office on this range of issues is that there is a significant amount of capacity within the civil sector to deal with a whole range of these scenarios and the consequence and management of them which would give me some reassurance, but I am not the authoritative spokesman to say what they are. I think it would be quite wrong for me to be so. What I can do is tell you about are those enhancements and elements of the military support that we give to the civil sector and the degree to which, since 11 September, they have been enhanced and, depending on the policy findings of the SDR extra chapter, may be further enhanced. Since 11 September, for example, we have made significant enhancements both in equipment terms and military manpower terms into the nationwide coverage of explosive ordnance disposal. We have enhanced the military component to the "render safe" procedure for a CBRN device. We have, as you will hear in private session, developed procedures to deal with rogue aircraft. We have enhanced the UK radar coverage. We have had a run-out of the sea-based counter terrorism operation. We have enhanced the security—

6   The air exclusion zone was first imposed on the afternoon of 11th September 2001. The restrictions were lifted gradually over London, the last one being lifted at midnight on 15/16th September. Back

7   Ev 81. Back

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