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Domestic Counter-Terrorism, Security And Resilience

Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I wish to take the opportunity of the debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee's (ISC) annual report today to provide the House with an update on the progress that we are making in combating terrorism and creating security in the UK. We have had a year of significant progress in developing effective counter-terrorism and resilience measures, focusing on a range of fronts such as threat assessment, infrastructure, exercises and joint working.I discuss the assessment of threats frequently with the Director General of the Security Service and, as she recently said publicly, we must accept the realistic possibility of some form of unconventional terrorist attack in the western world. This is why we have invested significantly in prevention.

Creating security means investing in good government, effective services and international co-operation in a way that generates trust. This means:

having the right organisational arrangements and involvement of ministers;
being vigilant and well prepared at home (working on border security, having the right equipment and using exercises to train for a range of risks);
tackling terrorism at home and abroad (by seizing and stopping terrorist finance, arrests and detentions where necessary but also working to develop good community relations at home);
ensuring that all States are taking measures to combat terrorism and that terrorist groups can find no safe haven (around the world key terrorist suspects have been detained, many as a result of international co-operation involving the UK agencies); and
strengthening the international structures that we need to maintain this unprecedented level of activity (the UN, EU and G8).

Our organisational arrangements remain strong. I continue as overall security co-ordinator, with all relevant Ministers working together through cabinet committees. Beverley Hughes is now my deputy across the board on domestic counter-terrorism.

We have changed structures when needed in order to strengthen joint working. The creation last month of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which brought together those assessing and reporting threat intelligence, is a case in point. But I am determined not to make major structural changes where it would just hinder efficient working and add bureaucracy simply for the sake of a change of name.

I endorse the ISC's high regard for the valuable work of our security Agencies and their numerous successes in counter-terrorism.

As I suggested to the House on 2 April, the agreement that I signed with the US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is leading to unprecedented co-operation between the UK and US Governments.

A joint contact group of US and UK officials led by the Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator met in June and agreed to undertake joint crisis management through a series of table top exercises, leading to a major US/UK exercise in 2005. Work is also taking place on bilateral technology development, such as the opportunities created by biometrics.

At home we have taken major steps to secure our borders. For example through setting up an Iris recognition project, immigration fingerprinting with links to the Eurodac system, forgery detection equipment at ports and extensive use of CCTV and ANPR—all designed to smooth the flow of legitimate travellers while catching illegal entrants and terrorists suspects. We are also running a trial using passenger information gathered at time of check-in which is checked electronically against our database. Preliminary results are very positive. Such a concept provides a mechanism for routinely pre-screening passengers in advance of arrival. In parallel we are considering all the options for gathering information to carry out a full pre-screening programme for incoming passengers.

Another major step forward is the introduction of routine screening of port traffic for the illicit movement of radiological materials to reduce the threat from nuclear or radiological attack. This is a significant part of the £330 million additional counter terrorism money announced in the Budget, which also funds counter-terrorism projects for the Cabinet Office and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

While the most important priority is to prevent attacks, particularly through intelligence work, we are also prepared to deal with any attacks because no amount of preventative action can ever be 100 per cent. sure. A capabilities programme has been set up, following a review by the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, consisting of 16 workstreams each the responsibility of a lead Department with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office having overall management. The capabilities concerned cover personnel, equipment and training, as well as plans and concepts of operations. The aim of the programme is to ensure that the response is in place to deal rapidly, effectively and flexibly with the results of conventional or non-conventional destructive action.

An ongoing programme is equipping and training fire, police, health and other public service personnel for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) resilience. We have already trained 3,700 police officers and by next year will have trained over 6,000 officers to ensure that police forces nationally are able to deal with a CBRN incident. This is the level that the Association of Chief Police Officers has requested to deal with CBRN incidents. Decontamination arrangements have been agreed between fire fighters and health services. Personal protective equipment and training has been provided for ambulance workers and A&E departments. Strategic guidance on decontamination has been in place since February.

But we must not focus on CBRN to the exclusion of `conventional' terrorism. Many of the recent terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world have been suicide bombs, not CBRN.

Our exercise programme is key to building this resilience to deal with a range of threats. We have one of the world's best counter-terrorism exercise programmes and I am determined to ensure no loss of momentum. The Home Office has sponsored and supported a series of exercises over many years to ensure the UK's response to terrorism is kept to a high standard. A series of live counter-terrorist exercises takes place each year in addition to seminars and workshops in police force areas.

By their nature, these exercises reveal areas for improvement. The lessons learnt are circulated to the agencies and tested in further exercises. Moreover, these exercises are a vital training tool—they are not just for learning lessons or highlighting areas for improvement. Recent exercises have validated our response to a hi-jacked aircraft, terrorist occupation of buildings and ships, released or threatened release of chemical and biological agents and to a nuclear device.

A programme of local and pan London training exercises and day-to-day procedures testing is underway. One element of this programme is the London Underground exercise. Planning on this, which my right hon. Friend The Secretary of State for Transport will take the operational lead on, is underway for the exercise to take place by the autumn.

Physical security has also been improved where needed, such as around major landmarks.

A key weapon in the fight against terrorism is tackling its financing, much of which is through organised crime. Anti-terrorism investigations have benefited from the integration of a terrorist finance strategy from the outset.

Legislation that we have brought in is now paying off. In the last 6 months, two precedents have been set in the fight against terrorist financing—convictions have been obtained under Section 17 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and cash forfeitures made under the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCS). There have been 8 cash seizures under ATCS Act so far this year.

An example of this is an extremist support cell convicted of terrorist finance offences, with two men sentenced to 11 years each and a network disrupted that is thought to have raised in excess of £350,000 through cheque and credit card fraud. In another case, in March, four men were arrested attempting to leave country with over £25,000 which was seized.

Internationally we continue to develop new standards and best practices to counter terrorist financing. We have made significant progress in tracking down and freezing the funds of international terrorist groups. Much of the US$115 million frozen in the UK both before and after 11 September has been unfrozen and made available to the legitimate government of Afghanistan for the reconstruction of that country.

Small projects are also important. For example the Metropolitan police campaign to make small retailers aware that low level credit card fraud can be used to fund terrorism. The free CD and booklet produced by London First in partnership with the National Counter Terrorism Security Office and the Business Continuity Institute, with our endorsement, also advises businesses to contingency plan to survive a range of disaster risks.

The Government are continuing to take firm action to prevent terrorists using this country as a base or recruiting ground. For example there have been a number of arrests here in connection with the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on 30th April. Detention pending eventual deportation is used where necessary—15 individuals have been detained under powers in part 4 of ATCS, two of whom have since left the country voluntarily. Detainees have a full right of appeal and the first batch of appeals to be heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) started in May and will continue through to the autumn.

I will keep powers in legislation under review and make changes if necessary. For example, in the Criminal Justice Bill we are proposing an amendment to schedule 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to increase the maximum period that a terrorism suspect can be held without charge from seven to 14 days, when agreed by a court. A second amendment seeks to align the penalties for passport and driving licence fraud—an avenue of exploitation for terrorists—and make both arrestable offences.

We have streamlined the assessment of threats and their communication to the public. Today we are publishing an update of our website, including new information on exercises and on warnings and informing the public about terrorist threats. Since its launch the website has received around 320,000 page viewings. Recognising that not everyone has access to or feels comfortable with using a website, we are informing public libraries of the new content and advising them to make print copies available.

I want to re-emphasise the message of balance and of not letting terrorism disrupt daily life. We have lived with threats for over three decades and they will be with us for years, we need to find a way of carrying on normally while taking sensible measures.

We need to remember also that our security can only be assured through a sustained long term effort that includes work to address the political and social conditions that terrorists exploit and to ensure that CBRN materials and know-how do not fall into their hands. This is just as important as building resilience at home. The ISC in their report which we are debating today expressed concerns about collection gaps due to the focus on current crises. The focus needs to be on both current threats and longer term concerns, they are invariably interrelated. I am confident that we have the balance right.