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Terrorism (Police Preparedness)

Volume 454: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

1. What recent assessment he has made of the preparedness of the police to respond to a terrorist incident in London. (106789)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked me to extend his apologies to the House for not being able to attend Home Office questions today. He is representing the Government at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Brussels.

The Home Secretary and I are updated regularly on police preparedness to respond to a terrorist incident in London or elsewhere by a variety of means.

Just one limited radiological event recently showed just how stretched the police and emergency services have been, and even the most rudimentary dirty bomb would pose problems of a completely different order. Can the Minister explain why there has been only one full radiological exercise in London—and that four years ago?

I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that the emergency services have been stretched. I have been intimately involved, if I may put it that way, with what the Health Protection Agency, the Atomic Weapons Establishment and a range of other emergency services have been doing in connection with recent incidents, and “stretched” is not a word that I would use.

In the aftermath of a terrorist incident in London—which God forbid—the question of costs would soon arise, as it already has in connection with Operation Overt in Buckinghamshire. Last week, the Prime Minister told our local newspaper, the Bucks Free Press, that central Government should cover the costs of Overt. Can the Minister confirm that that is the Government’s view?

As far as I am aware, we have yet to receive the full application from Thames Valley, but when I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and went around the cordon in what felt like the dead of night, that was certainly the assurance that was given. We will look very closely at any submission from Thames Valley relating specifically to Overt, and will view it in a sympathetic light.

When will the Government make telephone intercept evidence admissible in court so that innocent lives can be saved?

Again, I do not fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. He will know that we are looking very seriously at a range of legal frameworks and models that could be used to protect the substance of what we do with intercept evidence, and a report is due in the fullness of time.

We have considered the issue as part of the overall review of terrorism with which the Prime Minister charged the Home Secretary, and the result of those deliberations will be forthcoming at an appropriate time. That will include the important issue of intercept evidence, but I do not necessarily accept the absolute causal link posited by the hon. Gentleman.

One of the problems that contributed to the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes was lack of communication between the police on the surface and those in the underground. In the event of a de Menezes incident tomorrow, the same limitation would still apply. The police were offered a temporary solution to the problem three years ago. Why has it still not been fixed a year and a half after the de Menezes disaster?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that it is in the process of being fixed. He makes an entirely fair point—

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he needs to understand all the elements involved in the process. It is being undertaken, it will be undertaken and it should be undertaken, as one of the key lessons learnt from 7 July. In broad terms I entirely agree that this needs to happen as quickly as possible, and it is happening as part of the roll-out of Airwave throughout the country. I am particularly alive to its importance, not least owing to my limited 18-month experience as Minister responsible for transport in London.

That really is not acceptable. The issue has been around, and the vulnerability of the London tube has been known about, since 9/11—since 2001, not since last year. The Government therefore have no excuse.

Let us look at another aspect of the extent of police preparedness. One way to improve the ability of the police both to charge and to convict terrorists—apart from the intercept evidence mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley)—is to allow them to interview terrorist suspects after charge. The Government were offered that option more than a year ago by all Opposition parties. It was non-controversial, it was less draconian than the 90-day period, it would have been very effective in improving both speed of charging and probability of conviction, and it was supported by everyone from Liberty to the Commissioner of the Met. Why has it not yet been implemented?

Again, there are a number of elements in the question to which I would not subscribe. The proposal is being considered as part of a wider review. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, because he is very thoughtful on these matters, post-charge interview is not possible under legislation without at least consideration of the inference drawn from the right to silence. The two go hand in hand.

These matters are being considered, and although it is not definite, we intend to produce at least a preliminary report on the outcome of the review relating to all aspects of terrorism before the break at the end of the year, or very soon thereafter. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that his point, as well as the other point about intercept evidence, will be considered fully. However, neither is quite the panacea that the questions have tried to offer—although I realise that that is not what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting. They may help, which is why they are being considered very seriously.

I shall be happy to report the right hon. Gentleman’s interest to the Home Secretary, who I am sure will wish to discuss matters with him further when the time is right.