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Volume 81: debated on Tuesday 25 June 1985

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3.33 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

As the House will know from the statement issued by the police yesterday, on 22 June five people were arrested in Glasgow by Strathclyde police and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has approved the extension of their detention for five days for further questioning. Since then the police have arrested and detained under the Act a further 16 people. Those detained are being questioned in connection with a number of offences, including the bombing of the Grand hotel at Brighton.

As a result of information obtained following the arrests made on 22 June, the police were able to discover and disarm a bomb set for detonation on long-term timer in a room at the Rubens hotel, Buckingham Palace road. The investigation, the discovery of the bomb and its disarming are outstandingly successful demonstrations of the professionalism, courage and determination of the police in the battle against terrorism, which they are fighting on behalf of us all. I congratulate warmly all the forces concerned.

The House will also be aware, however, that the bomb discovered at the Rubens hotel was intended to form part of a wider operation involving the planting of bombs in a number of towns: Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Dover, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Ramsgate, Southampton, Southend and Torquay. The bombs were to be timed to explode at intervals from mid-July, at the height of the holiday season, and the attacks would have been quite indiscriminate in their victims. But, as last night's statement showed, the police have reason to believe that the only device so far placed was the one discovered in the Rubens hotel, and that the preparations of the IRA have been interrupted at an early stage.

None the less, the police must take account of what they regard as the slight possibility that it was not only in the Rubens hotel that a bomb had been placed. Accordingly, they are urgently pursuing co-ordinated inquiries and searches on a basis agreed between all the chief officers of police concerned. That will involve conducting searches in the places identified as intended targets just as vigorously as if there were positive reasons for believing that bombs had been put in place there.

The police service therefore now faces one of the largest preventive operations that it has ever mounted. I have asked the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Kenneth Newman, to undertake personally the co-ordination of the operation. The Commissioner's task is not to take over the local operational responsibilities of chief officers, but to provide a co-ordination centre and clearing house, in which individual forces may be represented, for the conduct of the operation. For that purpose, the forces principally involved will be invited to second appropriate officers temporarily to assist the commissioner in that task. He will in that way be able to ensure that information derived from related inquiries in any police force area is made available to others who may need to act upon it or refer to it. Those arrangements will also enable the public and the press to be kept properly informed, particularly in relation to any ways in which they can help.

But the local Members of Parliament may also have an important role to play. For that reason, the commissioner, in consultation with the chief constables for the relevant areas, will be arranging briefing tomorrow for Members of Parliament for the constituencies identified as possible targets. The purpose will be to explain the background and the police assessment as fully as practicable and to discuss ways in which the Members and the public can best help the police.

The House will appreciate the limitations on what can be said at this stage in the inquiries about the considerable amount of information that has so far been discovered. That has already resulted in a major terrorist outrage being thwarted. Every possible effort is now being made to prevent any further risk to the public and to bring to justice those who have been planning the cold-blooded and indiscriminate murder and maiming of totally innocent human beings.

On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I congratulate the police on this skilful and successful operation. By their tenacity and ingenuity, they have almost certainly saved the lives of innocent people-possibly very many thousands of innocent people. If that plot had succeeded, it is appalling to imagine the havoc and carnage that would afflicted countless carefree holidaymakers.

I hope that the Home Secretary will report to the House on any further significant developments as the public, including those in the holiday and tourist industries, will naturally continue to be concerned at any possible hazards. I am confident that all involved, whether those planning their holidays or those who work hard to earn their living at seaside resorts, will join the House—representing, as we do, the whole country — in in sending a message to those evil people who, for their bleak and inhuman purposes, are ready to destroy and maim men, women and children. That message is clear and unmistakable: "Your methods will not win. Bombs never have and never will change the principles and purpose of the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom."

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I shall certainly report to the House on any significant developments. I hope the House will feel that the course that has been followed in this case, of being as open as possible with the public about what has happened, is the right one.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the whole House will endorse his congratulations to the police? Other hon. Members may agree that, in view of the briefing that he is arranging for hon. Members who represent the towns affected, it would be inappropriate to press him today on detailed points. However, will he confirm that, where people have made, or might be considering making, plans to spend their holidays in the towns he mentioned, as of now he sees no reason why they should change those plans?

I certainly confirm what my right hon. Friend invites me to confirm. People should not change their plans. One reason for the briefing is that, apart from enlisting the support of hon. Members in the weeks that lie ahead for the tasks that fall to the police, the circumstances in each place will differ, so it is more convenient to deal with them by way of a briefing.

My hon. Friends and I wish to be associated with the expressions of admiration for the police and the intelligence services and join in the congratulations to them on the remarkable success of this operation. It has been reported that the nature of the hotel in Buckingham Palace road is such that, if the bomb had gone off, numbers of American tourists might have been killed. If that is so, does the Home Secretary agree that this is a timely moment for Her Majesty's Government to underline yet again to the American public the folly of donating money to organisations that support campaigns of this kind? Does he agree that there is some ray of optimism, in view of the information about IRA plans that has been forthcoming, and that that underlines yet again the growing revulsion of British and Irish citizens at this campaign of persistent murder and terror? Does he agree, therefore, that this would be a good time for the Government to underline yet again their intention to continue the constructive dialogue with the Government of Ireland?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and I agree with everything he said. The common purpose that we share with America in fighting and defeating terrorism is well reflected in the supplemental treaty on extradition which is being signed today and which, when completed and ratified, will prevent those who commit terrorist acts from seeking a haven in the United States, while hypocritically claiming a political justification for their murderous acts.

I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) said about this not being the time to press the Home Secretary on matters of detail, particularly as those concerned will be briefed tomorrow. However, as my right hon. and learned Friend said that there was a slight chance that bombs may have been placed, will he give an assurance, irrespective of tomorrow's briefing, that as soon as it becomes clear that has not happened, a further statement will be made to that effect? Otherwise, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, there will be an adverse effect on tourism, a trade which is of vital importance to parts of the country?

I assure my right hon. Friend that if it is felt possible to eliminate, more conclusively than I have been able to do today, any further possibilities, I shall be delighted and happy to do so.

I applaud the success of the police against the Provisional IRA. They have done well; may their efforts continue that way. However, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that I have been surprised at the detailed information that has appeared in the newspapers today, not only because that may help any remnants of a cell that is in this country but also because I hope that it will not weaken any case that may come before the courts?

The right hon. Gentleman, with his experience of these matters, is giving a salutary warning to all concerned in the handling of these issues.

Is the Home Secretary aware that, while in Southend this morning, I detected among the public a sense of outrage that the IRA planned to kill and maim innocent holidaymakers? Is he further aware that the public are immensely grateful to the police for showing professional skills and bravery in thwarting the IRAs appalling plan? Does the co-ordination arrangement mean that the extremely professional skills of the Met will be available, if required, to county forces?

Have the Government taken note that once again the operations of the Provisional IRA have been pointedly used to bring pressure to bear on Her Majesty's Government in the context of the conclusion of certain arrangements with the Irish Government?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the people of Brighton will greatly welcome his statement showing yet again the competence and effectiveness of the Sussex police force and the other forces involved? Will he emphasise the importance of the public giving full support to the police in their activities and ignoring the anti-police activities of small groups of extreme Left-wing activists in my town and in other parts of the country?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations and I welcome the opportunity that they give me to say that members of the public should be on the alert for suspicious objects, individuals and incidents, but that neither they nor hoteliers should institute searches of establishments without advice from the police.

Will the Home Secretary convey the congratulations of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself to all those police forces throughout the country which have played such a notable part in forestalling appalling outrages and in particular to the force in the Strathclyde region? In that context, does he agree that it is to the regional and local police forces that the country must turn for protection and that we must guard against responding by any step towards the creation of a national police force? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in that regard I view with some disquiet the appointment of Sir Kenneth Newman in a co-ordinating role?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to draw attention to the contributions of a number of police forces and to single out Strathclyde in this instance, but I am afraid that I do not agree with his comments about the appointment of Sir Kenneth Newman. If the hon. Gentleman had followed carefully the terms of my statement he would have realised that it was designed to avoid precisely that which he fears. There is no question of a step towards the creation of a national police force. I happen to believe that such a force would not be more efficient, quite apart from any political disadvantages. In an event of this kind, however, the necessity for co-ordination is real and imperative and I believe that the machinery that we have set up is appropriate.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that all concerned with the tourist industry, especially hoteliers, are most perturbed by these developments? Will he confirm that additional surveillance will be given in areas which, although not mentioned, are equally vulnerable?

Certainly, wherever in the judgment of the police there is an enhanced risk, enhanced protection will be provided.

Having witnessed too many times for comfort the professionalism of the police and the Army in situations of this kind I can only congratulate them yet again on their success, as I have done many times before. Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) has said, is the Home Secretary in a position to say in a few words whether the Prevention of Terrorism Act has helped him in circumstances of this kind?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the superb work of the intelligence services, which deserves the gratitude of the whole country, bears out the truth of what my right hon. and learned friend told the Select Committee on Home Affairs some months ago—that but for the work of the security forces hundreds of people now alive would be dead?

My hon. and learned Friend is quite right. I did not and could not anticipate that what I said to the Select Committee would be borne out so vividly and in such a horrifying way so soon afterwards.

Further to the point raised by the leader of the Liberal party, in view of the record number of American visitors staying at British hotels this year, would it not be sensible to draw attention to the fact that the IRA is no respecter of whom it maims and murders, and should not such visitors be given an information pack on the IRA to take home?

That process of education was sadly and tragically enhanced by the Harrods bombing in which there were American victims. The fact that IRA terrorism respects no persons can and should be abundantly clear to citizens of the United States, whether visiting here or at home. I also wish to say to them that they are most welcome here, and we will do everything we can to make them safe.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the arrangements he has made to brief tomorrow the representatives of the resorts identified. Further to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon), does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the investigations which he has reported to the House yet again underline the importance of the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Will he join me in expressing the hope that those who have opposed this legislation in the past will reconsider their attitude in the light of these developments?

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I do not wish to enter a partisan note, but I was always baffled at the thought that those who introduced the legislation should have felt that it was no longer necessary. Present circumstances and events, alas, underline its enduring necessity.

Will the Home Secretary accept that, with others in the community, we share in the joy at the success of the security forces and agree with the necessity to co-ordinate those forces to deal with such an attack upon the nation? Does he also accept that a recently elected Derry councillor, who five years ago carried a bomb into Londonderry guildhall, has gone on record as saying that that was a political statement? Perhaps the time has now come for the Government to reconsider the position of Sinn Fein, the political representative of the IRA, and to proscribe it as a political party.

I shall not comment on that suggestion, but there can be no question of any political justification for acts of violence. We do not recognise violence as a means of furthering political ends.

On behalf of my many constituents who work and shop in Southampton throughout the year, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the magnificent success of the security services. As he has pointed out, the danger has not gone away. Will he therefore seriously consider using the Central Office of Information to mount a vigorous advertising campaign to warn holidaymakers and others of the ever-present danger?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, which I should like to consider.

Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Members of Parliament of all the cities named will look forward to the meeting but that we must go through an educative process? We must become more vigilant to the obvious things that should be observed. I think in particular of hotel managements, hotel employees, hotel guests and everyone who frequents a restaurant. Wherever people reside, they must look for the unattended parcel and the easy hiding place.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend convey to the Kent police force my thanks and those of my constituents for the part they played in producing this result? Does he agree that at least part of the IRA campaign was aimed at economic rather than personal targets? Does he further agree that it would be a tremendous and sad irony if, in the light of the success of the police campaign, the British public were to do the IRA's job for it by boycotting English seaside resorts?

My hon. Friend is entirely right in his assessment of one objective of the IRA, and I share his determination that that objective should not be achieved.

Is my hon. right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hoteliers in my seaside constituency will be relieved by today's news? Does he agree that this is an appropriate moment to spare no effort in tightening the control and handling of baggage and cargo at airports?

Certainly, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has taken the matter well on board.

Since these perverted people have been thwarted in this campaign, is there not a danger that remaining members of that cell or other cells may still be active? Should there not be a campaign by the Government to warn the public about the risks in any public place, such as restaurants, stations or big stores?

Naturally, I have no knowledge or information beyond what I have told the House about this campaign. The risks that the hon. Gentleman identified are real, but I do not believe that they should be exaggerated.

Order. I will call the five hon. Members who are standing, but I ask them to address their questions in a somewhat different fashion. I know they are speaking for their constituents, but this is a narrow statement.

Noting the gratifying unity in the House today, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether it is true that those who will an end must will the means? Is not an indispensable means to the end that we all seek the Prevention of Terrorism Act?

Since terrorism is the most barbaric form of protest, does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that, aided and abetted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry plus a very sympathetic Chief Whip, the time has come for the Cabinet, as a matter of policy, to put the Whips in and reintroduce capital punishment for terrorism?

My hon. Friend will have observed how I voted when this matter came before the House, but I have not changed my view that this matter should not be determined on the basis of a party vote.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend be more specific about the new arrangement with the United States, which is a remarkable change in American practice on extradition? Is he sure that it will obtain the approval of Congress and the co-operation of all American judges?

As my hon. Friend says, it will require the approval of the United States Senate, and that approval has still to be achieved. Events such as the ones that we are discussing will underline, in the United States as elsewhere, the importance of ensuring that there are no safe havens for those about whom there is suspicion of committing such acts. I hope that the ratification of this important agreement will proceed smoothly.

In congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend on the superb work done by police forces throughout the country, may I add a word of caution? I would imagine that it is important that other members of the IRA, no matter where they are in the country, should have no more details of what we have done to date. Therefore, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider supporting what the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said, and introduce a security clampdown? I know that the House is fully behind the police force, under Sir Kenneth Newman, and we must cut out the cancer of IRA terrorists as a matter of great urgency.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. The information that we have been given is only a small part of the information that is already in the hands of the police. We must all be sensitive to the primary needs of security, although the wide availability of information can assist in tracking down people on occasions such as this.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the American treaty. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if the treaty is ratified, it will be retrospective? On the appointment of Sir Kenneth Newman, will my right hon. and learned Friend brush aside all the nonsense of the suggestions that this is a move towards a national police force? It is no such thing. Will he recognise also that the best thing that the House could do for Sir Kenneth Newman and for the police as a whole is to ensure that the Special Branch and the anti-terrorist squad have the necessary men and resources to provide bipartisan support for the Prevention of Terrorism Act and put an end to rate-financed denigration of the police?

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the denigration of the police and the need for them to be adequately supported. I agree also with my hon. Friend's point about the role of co-ordination that is necessary in this case. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about the extradition arrangements. My hon. Friend asked whether the supplemental treaty would be restrospective. It will apply to any offence that is committed before or after it comes into effect.