Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1500
WEDNESDAY 22 MAY 2002
MP, MR BRUCE
DENHAM MP, MR
LESLIE MP AND
1500. So you do not think it should have been
made public that we had procured this vaccine in the first place?
(Mr Denham) I think there is a difficulty. Of course
since then this has got wider political overtones which have nothing
to do, I am confident, with the procurement process, so I do not
want anything I say about wider public disclosure to get mixed
up in that. I think it is generally not desirable to have too
much detail about our state of preparedness for a whole range
of different possible scenarios in the public domain. That is
my view. The consequence of this coming into the public domain
was that more is in the public domain than I personally would
have thought was desirable, because I do not think any of us wants
toOn any one issue it does not look too bad, but if you
go through every single thing that you can imagine might happen
and say in a practical way, "These are all our strengths
and these are all our weaknesses", is that of great use to
the public or someone else? We have to be very careful about our
approach to these issues.
1501. You could argue that it would be helpful
to the British public in terms of reassurance, especially when
they saw that the Americans a few months earlier had actually
procured the vaccine. But you are saying you do not think it should
be in the public domain at all?
(Mr Denham) I think the difficulty is the one of the
principle. On a specific issue I do not have particular problems,
but over a range of issues the danger is of getting into a situation
of revealing areas of vulnerability, revealing areas where we
are mistaken in assumptions we have made, and that being in areas
where we have to take this seriously because these are not lighthearted
matters that we are dealing with.
(Mr Ingram) Could I say that we have quite an intensive
procurement activity in all of this. Sometimes when you decide
to procure something it may not be readily available, so the public
debate about seeking a particular mechanism or equipment, and
then you get that time lag before it then comes into play, or
exposing something. So to take the specific, I would ask the Committee
then to think of the generality of the debate. On that they want
everything. If not, where would the Committee draw the line on
Mr Jones: In this case it was actually freely
available from more than one source.
1502. There is some legitimate concern here,
apart from the wider political issues, about the procurement process.
We understand the need for national security and the need for
you not to divulge information which will be sensitive and of
value to an enemy. That is quite clear. The Americans, in seeking
a vaccine, made it public that they were seeking a vaccine. You
made it public that you were seeking a vaccine to protect the
United Kingdom's citizens. They went to an open tender process.
Apparently, according to Dr Troop, five companies were approached
here. The British company which is supplying the United States
did not get the contract. The public was told that a British company
called PowderJect was going to get the contract. Subsequently
it turned out that PowderJect were merely the middle man, and
that the company which would be manufacturing the vaccine was
a German company or a company based in Germany with a Danish parent
called Bavarian Nordic. We were not told that. Furthermore, I
have a press release here from Bavarian Nordic dated 11 April
which says that they are entering into a 17.6 million euro strategic
vaccine delivery collaboration with PowderJect. I work that out
at about £10 million. You will know the stories that you
are payingthe taxpayer, correction, is payingsomething
like £30 million for this, for a vaccine which is costing
18 million euros or £10 million to deliver to PowderJect.
These are legitimate questions of public concern. Why have the
Americans felt able to go to an open process, when they are much
more sensitive about their vulnerability to terrorism than we
are, because we have lived with it for longer than they have,
yet we are not prepared to engage in that same open process?
(Mr Denham) I think we need to distinguish between
two separate issues, Chairman. One is revealing information about
our state of preparedness or the assumptions we are making about
what we should in fact be prepared for, and the issue which applies
across a whole range of government business about the procurement
of any particular thing or the way in which any particular contract
is run. I do not feel able, for the reasons I have said, to give
details of the procurement process in this case, although I understand
that the Department of Health felt there were sound reasons given
for what needed to be procured, the world position in the market
1503. It was for national security reasons.
That was the reason they gave.
(Mr Denham) That is something that you would need
to pursue with the Department of Health. I do not really feel
that I can do that, for reasons that I have given already. You
will have heard from the Department of Health about that. I do
not think it is for me to pass judgement on the ways in which
the United States is handling these issues. I would say to the
Committee that we have 30 years' experience in this country of
dealing with terrorism from different routes and different origins.
Over that period of time, yes, there have been failures, but there
have been many successes. That has been within a context where
reasonable security has been taken about what we think we are
protecting against, whom we think we are protecting against, how
we think we are going to protect against it. My belief is that
that has served us and the wider public well, and I would be very
cautious about changing the quotas that have been developed over
1504. We understand that, Minister, but are
you suggesting to us that we are not entitled to ask questions
about matters which are in the public domain? It is in the public
domain that Her Majesty's Government is securing some vaccine,
although we do not know exactly how much, in order to provide
some protection for the people of this country. It is in the public
domain who got the contract and it turns out actually when some
journalists did some delving that it was not a British company
that was making it, it was a Danish company based in Germany.
(Mr Denham) I think this Committee, or another Committee
of the House or whatever, as in any area of procurement over which
questions are being raised, is entitled to ask questions, it is
one of the privileges of Select Committees. I have to say though
that if you want to talk about the detailed role of Ministers
in this process you or another Committee should talk to the Ministers
who were involved in that process.
1505. If we could move on to the question of
the military assistance to the civil authorities. At the moment
military assistance to the civil authorities is provided only
when it is available. It cannot be relied on or included in emergency
planning. What would be the effects on military deployments and
planning of guaranteeing the availability of, let us say, perhaps
a battalion in each region with a response time of, say, four
to eight hours?
(Mr Ingram) I gave an indication in an earlier answer
that this is one of the areas that we are looking at. I do not
want to set out in detail the final conclusions as to how best
we can deliver on that mission or request from whichever source
it comes from in terms of civil aid. We are at the point of conclusion
of an examination of this, it is not far away from the direction
that you are coming from, Mr Howarth. I would love to be able
to say today "yes, here is the answer" but we have not
yet precisely defined what we intend to do. That is coming to
a conclusion. I hope it is published in advance of your final
report because it could then assist you in seeing whether we have
met your thought processes on this. There is a consistency in
direction on this in seeking to deliver on that area.
1506. We recognise that our forces are heavily
(Mr Ingram) It is nothing to do with that.
1507. You are saying that you are looking actively
at the idea of specifically tasking certain units, perhaps on
a regional basis, but you have not fully refined your thoughts
on it yet?
(Mr Ingram) Remembering a key element in terms of
the review of the SDR The New Chapter approach relates
to the TA and the Reserves and then to look at the combination
of what can be played in best to meet that type of immediate demand.
I would love to be able to announce it today because we could
get a headline out of it but I think this shows that we are not
chasing that type of approach. This is a serious point that I
am making. We have got to be careful, we have got to make sure
that what we are going to do actually delivers to meet that need.
It will happen soon but I cannot give you a precise date.
1508. But you recognise the problem, which is
the emergency services find it difficult to call upon the armed
forces, specifically the Army, quite simply because they cannot
guarantee to be available, so you are working on the idea that
they might be able to guarantee some availability?
(Mr Ingram) If there is a shortfall, and I think there
is an indication from a variety of sources that there is a need
for additional immediate response activity across the whole of
the UK, then we have got to seek to meet that. How precisely we
do that is still to be fully clarified. I have got to say this
view that somehow or other the Army should be ready for any eventuality
is simply not possible. It is not just a case of deployment overseas,
it is a case of availability in terms of immediate response. What
I can say, going back to the ground truth debate, is when the
Army is called upon it delivers. We could go through a range of
recent events where it did deliver. The emergency services should
not just say "if this is something we cannot deliver they
can call on the Army". We have got to get better co-ordination
and understanding on that point.
1509. Are you looking at Reserves to perform
this role more than the regular forces?
(Mr Ingram) I have said what I have said.
1510. Okay. Can I ask you one final question.
Have any military units other than Air Defence Squadrons been
given any contingency tasking since 11 September?
(Mr Ingram) Yes.
1511. Are you in a position to elaborate?
(Mr Ingram) I will send you a note on that.
1512. I think it would be helpful. You have
been helpful about the air squadrons and their role and I think
it would be quite helpful to know what additional tasking has
(Mr Ingram) We are into classified territory again
because explaining our state of readiness is what people want
1513. My questions are on public information,
Minister. Does the public have a right to know what they are threatened
by and what the Government is doing to protect them? Could you
expand on where you draw the line between information and causing
(Mr Denham) It is a difficult balance that we have
to try and strike correctly all the time. You want to ensure that
there is a proper state of preparedness or alertness in the public.
You do not want to either do things that could unnecessarily alarm
people for no great purpose and you certainly do not want to provide
information if there is a specific question of threat which would
directly inform a potential attacker either that we knew what
they were up to or, indeed, by giving the wrong information that
we had no idea what they were up to. What we have developed over
the experience of terrorism over the last 30 years is, in a sense,
a graded response. We are all familiar with the times when there
may be a greater reassurance presence on the streets or there
may be more information available to the public about watching
out for suspicious packages if we are seen to be in the middle
of a bombing campaign, so I think there is a constant adjustment
of the information which is available to the public which complements
the more targeted information which is available to certain key
organisations in both the public and the private sectors.
(Mr Leslie) If you look at the wide array of possible
circumstances where the public may need to have information about
particular incidents or similar situations there are a number
of different responses that the public sector, the Government,
can make to those. Locally, of course, the police and emergency
services have the capacity to inform particular neighbourhoods
in particular situations. At the other end of the spectrum we
have national warning systems that are also available to come
into play. I recently attended a seminar with the catchy title
"National Steering Committee on Warning and Informing the
Public", so there are a number of bodies and experts focusing
on these issues and also looking at new communications technologies
as well as they develop.
1514. At least the title is better than the
Civil Contingencies Secretariat.
(Mr Ingram) At least you understood it.
1515. If you do not disclose the security measures
that you have taken against chemical and biological attack, how
can your actions be held accountable on behalf of the public?
(Mr Denham) In a sense we are all accountable. The
Home Secretary can be questioned by Parliament, Committees like
this can question Ministers both in public and in private session
where we can reveal extra information, we give classified information
to the Committee, and through that to the House. I acknowledge
the dilemma that you put forward and if things go badly wrong
no doubt we will be held accountable for the consequences of that.
It is not really possible to crawl publicly over everything that
is done, as it were, and also maintain a reasonable degree of
security. I think an inquiry like this one is actually welcome
because your ability to operate both in public and in more confidential
session does enable you to have an informed independent view of
what we are doing which I am sure will help shape the way things
are done in the future.
1516. I have two questions on another aspect
of this, but before that I have two following up Mr Roy's question.
You see, the problem is, you have given absolutely the right answer,
in the sense that if I were in your position, on the public's
right to know, I would have said precisely the same as you, because
that is the prisoner of the position you are in. However, it all
falls down when it comes to the particular. For instance, it just
happened that I, like a lot of other people, flew into Washington
on 10 September. It would not have been unusual for my wife and
myself to go into an airport hotel, pick up a flight from Washington
and take a domestic flight in the United States. I would have
liked to have been told what was going on, and information was
availableI am not suggesting directly to the British authorities,
but it certainly seems to have been available to the American
authorities. I have absolutely no confidence, from the way that
the Government is structured, that I could get that information.
Disabuse me of that.
(Mr Denham) Let me again draw the distinction based
on what we have done previously. If in the past, when we have
had public terrorist attacks, there has been specific information
sufficient to justify warning the public of the location, the
time to clear an area or whatever, the system has, I think, generally
worked well to do that, to get the relevant message across. If
intelligence were to suggest that a bomb might go off somewhere
associated with the same source, but we do not know where, it
is not so clear that it is useful to say then, "We think
a bomb will go off", although, as I said earlier, there is
a graded response which does enable the level of messages about
looking out for suspicious packages and so on to be raised. I
think the question really is the one of grading the quality of
the information according to the confidence that people feel they
have in it. That does put a responsibility on the security services
and others who are responsible for advising ministers on how good
the information is and then for the rest of the system to act
accordingly, but the system, I think, is designed to do that.
1517. Who takes the decision? Let us assume
that there is such an eventuality. The public may be told or may
not. Who takes the decision that they may or may not be told?
(Mr Denham) In practice you probably need to draw
a distinction between something that is going to happen in ten
minutes' time and something over a period of time, but if there
were strong indications of a terrorist incident being predicted,
then the COBR mechanism would come into place. It would bring
officials together, and officials are effectively on a standing
instruction to bring in ministers and to consult with the appropriate
ministers if there is anything which involves issues which are
sensitive. Clearly, judgements about what to communicate to the
public can fall into that category. So essentially it would be
a process that came through the system of ministerial accountability,
with the Home Secretary at the apex of that, which would actually
Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you so very
much, that was very interesting. As you have given us an invitation
to come back with further questions, I promise you we will avail
ourselves of that invitation. Adam will tell me now what he was
going to tell me about Bowman! Thank you so much.