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Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will someone tell me why I am out of order? I am referring to the heightened state of security against a possible disaster from a terrorist attack. The preparation and readiness of this country to respond is very much a part of this Statement and why the PNQ was asked in the first place.

The post was designed to,

The public are concerned. This is our only way to let them know whether the Government are ready.

Finally, would it not be better to have a dedicated homeland security chief, with support and powers to address a situation that is clearly urgent as a result of recent events and this week's security alert—not to replace the bodies to which I have referred but to co-ordinate and focus attention on protection of the home front in the face of a serious attack.

I implore the Minister not to interpret what I and my colleagues have said. This is not a call for security sensitive detail, nor is it, as the Statement says, calling on the Government,

    "to provide a running public commentary from the Dispatch Box on every end and turn".

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It is a call for Parliament to be given appropriate and timely information and for public assurance that as much forward planning and preparation for terrorist attacks as is needed is in fact either complete or in hand.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I echo the support for the police, the Army and the intelligence services for their work over the past few days.

In the Statement the Minister said that we should not be given a running commentary on every aspect. However, there has been a great deal of concern at seeing Schimitar tanks based at Heathrow without a great deal of information being presented at the time. After the missile attack on the aircraft leaving Kenya there will obviously be speculation about the vulnerability of civil aircraft. Furthermore, although we are not asking for a great deal more detail, information should be given to Parliament because there will be a vast amount of speculation in the press.

I have one or two questions. First, will the Home Secretary have urgent discussions with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about how best the public can be kept informed and how they should respond to those seeking further information?

My second question is equally important considering the parlous state of many local authority's finances. Will the Minister make sure that local government has the necessary resources for a civil response to the situation? I hope that the Minister can say whether he is satisfied with preparations made by local authorities, especially those on the flight path around Heathrow. Can he also say when the Government will bring forward the long promised civil contingency Bill?

3.39 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am happy to answer many if not all the questions that have been raised, starting with the criticism of my right honourable friend John Reid. Anyone who read the newspapers with care would be perfectly aware that John Reid was responding to an allegation from a journalist that the deployment of several hundred police and Army personnel to Heathrow had been done as a PR stunt by the Government. That seems to me such an outrageous question from a journalist that I am not in the slightest bit surprised that John Reid used clear and strong language to affirm that this was a real issue, that these were real threats and concerns, and that these were real troops. He did that in a shorthand and graphic way. It would have been irresponsible not to have made clear that this was a real issue. It was regrettable and lamentable that that question was asked and even had to be responded to.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Lord Filkin: In terms of the previous discussion in the House, we do not intend to appoint a chief of homeland security because we already have one—the Home

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Secretary. He chairs the relevant Cabinet committees, which have met on numerous occasions since 11th September; and he is responsible directly for the main elements of the work to counter terrorism, the Security Service and building resilience against terrorist threats. The Home Secretary chairs the Civil Contingency Committee and its two main sub-committees. He is supported in that structure by Sir David Omand, who has the role of security and intelligence co-ordinator across government.

When the head of US homeland security, Governor Tom Ridge, came to discuss with the Home Secretary in November our preparedness and theirs, he said in short that in a vastly different constitutional situation—a federal United States with a population of 280 million—they were seeking to put in place arrangements that were as robust and strong as the British situation.

Given that we have covered those issues before, it is surprising that the question is yet again being raised. I shall reflect, perhaps in quietness, on why it was raised when we have given clear and strong answers.

In light of 11th September, any government would have been grossly irresponsible if they had not sought to review every issue of structure and operational practice in government and all their other agencies because all our understanding of the scale and potential of threats was transformed by that event. I will not go into full details for reasons that the House will understand, but part of that review was carried out by Sir David Omand last summer. It looked in part at the structure of Cabinet committees, to ensure the clearest operational command within government and police forces—which have immediate, direct and clear responsibility for these measures.

In broad terms, I am happy to give the House the assurance that while we are not the slightest bit complacent and are aware of the unpredictability of attacks that may affect us, we have looked thoroughly at the structures of government and operational matters and they are strong and in good order. But one must never be complacent. That does not mean that we can have total security, when it is so easy for something to be done in an open society of our size and vulnerability. But we have looked at the issues responsibly.

We will bring forward an emergency civil contingencies Bill in good time. If the matter were of extreme urgency, we would have brought a Bill forward urgently. At this point in time, it would make some necessary improvements but they do not go to the heart of preparedness to be able to rebut a terrorist threat.

There is not a fragmented approach within government. It is clear and strong and the leadership of the Prime Minister and Home Secretary seems to me and to the public to be clear and strong.

The first priority, as I hope we have made clear, will always be the security of the public. Those measures will drive us. But the state has to strike a balance between giving information to the public so that they can make their own mature judgments about how they respond—particularly if there were to be a specific and direct threat—and not giving succour and help to

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those who wish to damage this state by helping our opponents to be better placed to mount a terrorist attack on us. I do not say that in any cheap way to hide behind a smokescreen in responding to appropriate questions in the House.

There will always be, as there should be, questions about how detailed operational matters could be further improved. Mention was made of the National Audit Office. Some of those measures are under active consideration but if we thought that they were in any way weakening significantly our ability to rebut a terrorist attack, we would act immediately and expeditiously to deal with them.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the public are not foolish. The public are intelligent. They are aware of what happened on 11th September. They know that the state must do all it can. They know that none of us can provide a guarantee of 100 per cent protection. Therefore, we have made it absolutely plain that when there is a clear, specific and direct threat, the public will be told and we will act. When intelligence sources reveal the possibility of a threat, we must act with measure by putting in place arrangements to increase our resilience and protection against any possibility of attack while not closing down the economy and the society that we hold dear and must sustain in the face of threats.

I remind the House that such threats are not new. The scale may be new but we have been seeking out and countering the threat of terrorism to our society for 30 years. Under the previous government, the threat of the Provisional IRA was real and ever present. There has been pressure on government to refine their mechanisms and to do their utmost to defend society against those attacks and others.

We increased resources for local government this year. Local authorities have adequate resources to do their job and a responsibility to protect the citizens in their areas. Most local authorities already do that well. I would be foolish to think that every local authority in the country has perfect contingency plans. Further work will be done by the Government in partnership with local authorities to ensure that they are as robust as they should be in the interests of their citizens.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, to reassure the public that there is a continuing, proportional and informed reaction to information about the possible threat of international terrorism, will the Minister tell the House what progress is being made to reform Special Branch in response to the recent report by Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, Mr. Blakey, which set out important proposals for the security of the public?

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