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Brought up, and read the First time.
This is not a new subject in the public forum. It was talked about during pre-legislative scrutiny before the Bill was considered in Committee, discussed endlessly in Committee and has had any number of outings both in the press and generally in the public place. It is interesting that the Government have continually denied the need for public information. For example, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was particularly vocal in Committee about there always being a fine balance to be struck between telling the people too much and panicking them and not telling the public anything at all.
When we talked in Committee about the need for public information, the Government made it clear that there was no further need for a campaign to tell people precisely what was going on. We mentioned that the level of national alert was never disseminated in a public place and that we had always to rely on the BBC, and particularly Radio 4's "Today" programme, to leak the fact that the level of national alert went up or down.
For instance, after the bombings in early November of our embassies in Turkey, the public were simply not told that the alert level had gone up to its second highest possible stage, until we were told of the situation on national radio. It was interesting that, despite having talked about the issue in Committee and despite the Government having resisted any attempts to inform the public about what the threat was, it was left to the British Transport police and the Metropolitan police to mount an effective and thorough poster campaign immediately after the Madrid bombing. That gives the lie to the assertions that information would panic the public or that information was not necessary.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Over new year I was in New York city. My hon. Friend may not be aware that Fox News, CNN and WCBS-TVthe local CBS affiliateall had a banner across their news bulletins setting out the state of alert, which happened to be very high in New York city at that time. Does he think that that might be an indicator that could be employed in this country, given that there was no mass panic in New York and that the celebrations for new year's eve were performed well with many people attending them despite a high level of alert and the fact that they were informed of that situation?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. We ran out of time when we
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were discussing the previous new clause, but I intended to say that, during the second world war, we had an organisation known as the Civil Defence. It gave timely warnings about the likelihood of attack. Clearly, that would have been a conventional attack, probably mounted by the Luftwaffe. A terrorist attack is rather different. None the less, I believe that my hon. Friend made a valuable point. For example, during my several tours of duty in Ulster, it was always clear to me that information was being given by the police to the public about precisely what the threat was. It was less full than the American system. We have a formal system, and I suggest to the Government that there would be no harm in allowing the public to know. Rather than using the media to disseminate the message, part of the public information campaign should be exactly as my hon. Friend suggests. There should be a proper and orchestrated way of telling the public precisely what the level of threat is.
"The experience of SIESO members in warning and informing the public of the potential dangers of living next to top tier COMAH sites"
"gives the lie to the Government's belief that pre-education of the general population would cause panic. There is a need for people to know what measures they can take to safeguard themselves prior to the arrival of professional help."
Similarly, last year the Metropolitan police commissioned a report on possible co-operation between the Government and the private sector. That was known as Project Unicorn and it reported earlier this year, although the Government have chosen not to publicise the conclusions. Project Unicorn states:
"To the public at large the CBRN threat is undoubtedly the most frightening aspect of the 'new terrorism' . . . The Commercial Sector appears to be unanimous in its criticism of the present counter-terrorism Communications Policy prior to a major incident: they found it outdated, condescending, generally uncoordinated and at times incoherent."
I do not think that I need add to those two damning indictments of the fact that the Government are not prepared to tell us what is going on. I suggest that we might follow the example of the Australian Government.
Many people say that this country is extremely "proof" to terrorism, that the public are used to it and will be able to take it on the chin, and that living through 30-odd years of activity by the Irish Republican Army and similar organisations has made London and other large cities pretty resilient, if the Minister does not mind my borrowing that phrase, to the effects of terrorism. It is therefore interesting that, after the Bali bomb, which killed plenty of Australians but did not kill anybody in Australia, the Australian Government, who have no real experience of terrorism, chose to take the subject extremely seriously.
The Australian Government chose to spend the money that needed to be spent and to do the research required of a responsible Government. That is why every single Australian has received information from his Government and why the Prime Minister has written to every Australian, beginning his letter, "Dear fellow Australian". An information pack that is now in the hands of every Australian household contains practical
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little measures such as fridge magnets with all the emergency telephone numbers that any member of the public might want to refer to.
Why are we not doing that? Yes, it would cost and, yes, there would be opportunity cost, but have the Government failed to understand that the population are not a bunch of naughty schoolchildren, but responsible adults? I believe that knowledge dispels fear; it does not inspire panic, unless it is articulated irresponsibly or badly. Again, I speak from personal experience. The population of Northern Ireland were constantly told what the threat was and I never once saw panic over there.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): Just this past weekend, every pub in Bangor was advised of a threat, which was also newsworthy. The hon. Gentleman speaks about letting everyone know about the threat: the Government sent a booklet dealing with the Belfast agreement to every home in Northern Ireland, but this is a much more important issue because it involves life and death.
Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful for that helpful and perspicacious intervention. I hope that the Government pay attention to the words of an hon. Member who has clearly been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism for the past several decades.
It is interesting that the Government still continue not to take such action. The examples are there; other nations have tried those measures. I return to the point that, just before Christmas 11 years ago, we were told that if we owned lock-ups in London and saw suspicious groups of men, particularly if they were speaking with Irish accents, the police should be informed because there was a likelihood of a bomb or mortar attack.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no panic over that and no uprising among aggrieved Irish expatriates. People understood the difficulty and that the job was being done as properly as it could be. They understood that the Government cared and were concerned about their safety. I put the question again: why are this Government not acting on that particular point?
The next point that the new clause addresses is training of the public going hand in hand with the information that I have already addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned the effects of what turned out to be a benign demonstration here in the House last Wednesday. I accept that it was difficult to know whether the attack could have been lethal, what agent had been used and whether the House reacted correctly or incorrectly, but that is not the point that I am trying to make. The point is that not a single person in the Chamber had received any training in what to do in the event of such an attack.
About two weeks ago, I received from Officers of the House an hour and a half of extremely effective training in what to do in the event of a fire. At the end of the
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training, I was much better informed and had been told precisely what to do. One or two anomalies had been ironed out and, having served as a part-time fireman and having been involved in several fires in my time, I felt that I was a much more useful member of the House of Commons community, in more ways than one, than ever before.
I said to the authorities, "Thank you very much indeed, but what do I do in the event of a bomb being discovered outside the House of Commons or a contaminatory attack?" Answer came there none. There is no training available that I am aware of. Even more depressing is that fact that, with one or two notable exceptions, no Member of Parliament who spoke in public in the media after that attack said, "That is all very well for what is happening in Westminster, but what about our votersthe people who send us here to represent them on these green Benches?"
Very few Members seemed to be able to spread their wings and say, "Don't we owe it to our voters to give them some training in what to do in such events?" The Government may say that offering such training would frighten people. Fine, but I would say that knowledge dispels fear. The Government may say that the training would be expensive, and I acknowledge that there would be a cost. They may say that we have never done that sort of thing before but that is nonsense. This nation has faced threats in the pastconventional and unconventional.
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