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Bomb Incidents

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 28 January 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the bomb explosions in Enfield, London and Manchester.

As the House knows, yesterday afternoon and evening several terrorist explosions occurred after a period of some weeks comparatively free from such incidents.

At about 4.30 p.m. the first explosion occurred in Lewis's department store in the centre of Manchester. Nineteen people were injured, one seriously. Later in the evening there were five explosions in London—the first in Bond Street, then two at Ponders End, then one in Kensington High Street and another in Victoria Street. One person was injured in Bond Street, four in Kensington High Street and one in Victoria Street.

Two further devices were defused in the early hours of this morning: one at a shop in Putney High Street and one at a restaurant in Hampstead.

On behalf, I am sure, of the whole House I should like to express our sympathy with those who have suffered injury and shock as a result of these incidents, and our gratitude to the emergency services for their prompt response to them.

It is difficult at present to appraise what yesterday's incidents suggest for the future, but it is clear that a period of the utmost vigilance is called for. The police are well aware of this, and I am sure that their efforts should be sustained by an equal awareness on the part of the public.

I am sure that my constituents would also wish me to express their condolences to those who have suffered injury. Although two of the explosions took place in my constituency, happily my own constituents were not badly hurt. Since a novel feature of the explosions in Enfield was the fact that they concerned industrial establishments may I ask the Home Secretary to say what measures are being taken to strengthen the security of industrial establishments throughout the country, bearing in mind the fact that the situation in Enfield would have been worse had not the chemical firm in question operated the most up-to-date security and safety measures for the withdrawal of staff?

I will certainly take note of what my hon. Friend says. It is not the case that yesterday's incidents were directed wholly or even primarily at industrial establishments; they affected retail shops and a wide range of public places, too. I will certainly consider whether there is any useful additional guidance which police forces can give to industrial establishments. Those in charge of such establishments should consult their local police about whether their security could be strengthened. Our desire is to maintain the utmost degree of vigilance, bearing in mind that a wide range of public targets can be selected. It is difficult to give guidance about where such attacks are likely to be made. The police will give attention to this and will be glad to give what advice they can to anyone who asks for it.

May I join in commiserating with the people in Manchester particularly the two still in hospital, who were hurt by the explosion at Lewis's? May I ask the Home Secretary two questions about the Manchester situation? Can he comment on the statement in the Press that there was a delay of 19 minutes between notice being given by the Press Association and Lewis's being evacuated? Second, can he say what part the persistence of hoax calls plays in delays of this kind?

I can give the hon. Member and the House a little more information on this. The warning was received by the Press Association in Manchester at 4.7 p.m. It was passed to the police, and the police informed the store security officer at 4.12 p.m., which I think was reasonably expeditious and would be recognised as such. The explosion took place at 4.24 p.m., by which time the management had decided to evacuate the store. So far as the police know, no announcement had been made to the public.

There is a difficulty here for managements of stores in deciding how they deal with this position. This particular management had received many hoax calls. It is difficult to strike a balanced judgment. It is easy to say, if someone does something too quickly—it happened in London recently—that their nerve has failed. On the other hand, if they act too slowly it can be said that they have been lax. This is a difficult balance of judgment.

I have given the hon. Member and the House the facts as they are available to me. I think it will be agreed that there was no delay on the part of the police in informing the store of the warning passed on to them.

May I add my condolences and, I am sure those, of my hon. Friends to those injured in the explosions in Manchester and elsewhere? Will my right hon. Friend endeavour to ensure that where there are warning systems—and I am sure that they must be provided in the future—they are understood by the public as well as the staff of establishments? Since there is the danger of panic when an alarm system sounds, will my right hon. Friend urge such establishments to do all that they can to ensure that there is orderly withdrawal and that the public is aware of what is happening?

I will, through the police forces, endeavour to see that that is done. I am not sure that there has been any case of disorderly withdrawal. As I said earlier, it is a delicate balance to strike and to decide how hastily to arrange for withdrawal. I have very much in mind what my hon. Friend has said. I am sure that the police forces and the Home Office will take action.

Is it not clear that the terrorists can strike at any British city, after the events in London, Birmingham and Manchester? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether there is any guidance which can be given to store owners and the like in connection with the use or non-use of the code in distinguishing between hoaxers and reality? Would the right hon. Gentleman undertake to consider the suggestion made today by the Chairman of the Police Federation, that the Bomb Squad should be organised on a national basis on the lines of regional crime squads?

On the last point, regional crime squads do not, of course, operate on a national basis they would not be called "regional" crime squads if they did. However, they operate with a high degree of national co-ordination. But it is desirable to achieve this, as we have already done to some extent, in relation to the Bomb Squad. As the right hon. Gentleman and the House know, there is already a Metropolitan Bomb Squad which works in close co-operation with the detective branches in provincial forces.

Arrangements have already been made, were made before this attack, for detectives in the provinces to be attached for a period to the Metropolitan Bomb Squad to gain experience. There is broadly the same degree of co-ordination as we have in relation to the regional crime squads, but if anything could be done to tighten this up I would of course gladly do it. I shall pursue the matter as vigorously as I can.

On the earlier question, yes, alas, it is indeed the case that attacks can be made against any cities. If further guidance could usefully be given to store owners, this would be put out. They and all those who are responsible for running establishments where large numbers of the public congregate should keep in close touch with their local police forces as to how best to deal with this threat.

As I have said, it is difficult at present to appraise what this means for the future, but a period of vigilance is clearly highly desirable. I can assure the House that the police and the security forces will accept this and will operate on this basis. I hope that those with particular responsibility for congregations of people, and the public generally, will do so, too.

When the Minister has occasion to make a statement to the House on outrages of this kind, would it not be proper to arrange to include in the statement a reference to all outrages of the kind which have occurred in the relevant period in any part of the Kingdom?

Yes; of course I in no way underestimate or seek to differentiate between outrages in any part of the United Kingdom. However, under our ministerial responsibility, I am responsible for England and Wales, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for Scotland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible for Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is not unnatural that I should answer, as do all Ministers, with regard to my own responsibility. But the right hon. Gentleman should not assume—nor should the House—that for that reason I in any way downgrade outrages which happen in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Although one agrees with the right hon. Gentleman that we cannot see into the future in these matters and that one must not jump to hasty conclusions, does he feel that the present insurance arrangements in this country, as distinct from Northern Ireland, are satisfactory? Would he not agree that the retail trade and, indeed, others providing services to the public have not only suffered severe losses but are in danger of suffering more? Would he not agree that the insurance arrangements in this part of the United Kingdom should now be brought into line with those prevailing in Northern Ireland?

I do not think that I would at this stage although this is clearly a matter that will have to be kept under review. The point at issue here is not, as it were, a moral judgment. It is a judgment as to whether the scale of attacks in this part of the United Kingdom is such that people cannot secure normal commercial cover under ordinary arrangements. So far this has not been the case, and the differentiation in this respect between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is based on that commercial criterion. If, most regrettably, a position arose—which it has not yet done and which I hope will not—in which normal commercial insurance for property could not be secured in this country, of course we should have to look at the matter afresh. That is the essential difference—it is a question whether it is still possible to obtain normal commercial cover.

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the victims of the bombs in Manchester and elsewhere yesterday? Would the right hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that, when next his officials are having discussions with the IRA, they convey to them the fact that the people of Manchester and, indeed, the British people as a whole will not be intimidated by these baboons and hyenas who seek to maim, mutilate and murder innocent men, women and children in the cities of our country?

I do not think that there is any question of anyone being intimated. I know that my right hon. Friend feels very strongly indeed on this matter. He has certainly not been intimated in the way in which he has dealt with this matter, which I think has shown great nerve and great judgment, in recent difficult weeks.